The elusive horror of Hiroshima

It's hard to fathom the nuclear holocaust that laid waste to this now vibrant city in 1945.

By Lesley M.M. Blume
photographs by Hiroki Kobayashi
Published 6 Aug 2020, 11:00 BST

The bomb's heat was so intense—millions of degrees at the detonation point—that it melted metal objects, including this statue of Buddha from a temple near ground zero.

Photograph by Hiroki Kobayashi

The official plans had been appropriately grand: 11,500 attendees would gather in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park for a somber ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city by the United States on August 6, 1945. But the pandemic had other plans.

As it has done in most cities around the world, the COVID-19 virus has altered or cancelled much of Hiroshima’s daily life: concerts, marathons, museum exhibits. The anniversary ceremony still took place on August 6, albeit with far fewer attendees. Only bomb survivors—or hibakusha—and their families attended. Audience members were seated six feet apart in the park. World leaders, no longer able to attend in person, were asked to submit video messages instead. A silence was held at 8.15am – the time the bomb was dropped.  

Hiroshima is harrowingly familiar with abrupt, unfathomable tragedy. But when I visited the city in late 2018, I was struck by how ordinary it looked and felt. I recall sitting on the narrow, elegant Motoyasu Bridge watching a bustling morning scene. Briefcase-carrying commuters in suits walked and biked across the bridge. Schoolchildren in uniforms skipped by in small groups. Nearby, a riverside café with a pretty fruit stand and ice cream stall out front was getting ready to open.

It could have been a scene from any city. But Hiroshima, of course, is not just any city. About 500 yards north of Motoyasu Bridge stands another bridge, the Aioi. The span was the original target for the bombing crew of the Enola Gay, which dropped a nearly 10,000-pound uranium bomb that detonated close to the spot where I was perched.

I was in Hiroshima to do research and conduct interviews for my book about World War II reporter John Hersey—the first journalist to reveal the true aftermath of the bomb here, particularly its radioactive impact on human beings. I was especially keen to meet Koko Tanimoto Kondo, a prominent peace activist and one of the last surviving protagonists of Hersey’s blockbuster article, “Hiroshima,” which was published in the August 31, 1946, issue of the New Yorker and later became a book.

When Hersey arrived in Hiroshima in 1946, eight months after the bombing, he found a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Now Hiroshima Prefecture is home to nearly three million people and is a major tourist destination. There’s a world-class museum documenting the event, as well as many monuments. Among them: the Genbaku Dome, one of the few structures left standing in the city centre after the bomb fell and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hiroshima’s leaders say they want the city to be regarded by the world in two ways: as a cautionary tale—a warning about the horrors of nuclear warfare—and as a phoenix that survived those horrors and resurrected itself, a triumph of the human spirit.

A small monument in downtown Hiroshima reveals how the immediate area appeared after the bomb reduced the city to ruined concrete hulks and rubble. But rebirth was rapid. One sign: Limited trolley service was restored in less than a year.

When I met Ms. Kondo, she was alternately solemn and mischievous, with a pronounced gallows humor. She was then 74, but as we walked through the city together, I could hardly keep up with her. She told me that she and her mother, Chisa Tanimoto—also a blast survivor who lived to an advanced age—used to joke grimly that the bomb’s radiation had somehow preserved them.

As we walked down a wide, tree-lined boulevard that sunny morning, it was hard for me to comprehend that this was the site of the first nuclear attack in history, and that Ms. Kondo was one of the few humans on Earth to have witnessed and survived it. (For those who lived, memories of the bomb are impossible to forget.)

Hellish fires and whirlwinds

When the U.S. dropped the bomb—dubbed “Little Boy” and scribbled with profane messages to the Japanese emperor—on Hiroshima, tens of thousands of people were burned to death or buried alive by collapsing buildings or bludgeoned by flying debris. Those directly under the bomb’s detonation point, or hypocentre, were incinerated: instantaneously erased from existence. The true death toll—estimates have ranged between 100,000 and 280,000—will never be known.

One of the few buildings left standing near ground zero, the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall is a stark reminder of the devastation the city suffered. Now part of the Peace Memorial Park, it is the city’s most iconic and hallowed site, visited by pilgrims from around the world.

“You dig two feet and there are [still] bones,” Hidehiko Yuzaki, the governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, told me. “We’re living on that. Not only near the epicentre, but across the city.”

At the time of the bombing, Ms. Kondo—then just over eight months old—was in her mother’s arms in their house near the city centre. The house collapsed on top of them, but her mother managed to free them from the debris and escape before a wall of flame consumed the area.

That day and night, as hellish fires and whirlwinds tore through the ruins, and blast survivors tried to find refuge in the city’s few surviving parks, the Japanese government in Tokyo had a difficult time processing what had happened. Had the city been attacked by a massive force of B-29s? Had a new sort of weapon been used? How else could such devastation be explained?

A professor named Yoshio Nishina, Japan’s chief nuclear physicist and leader of the country’s own atomic bomb effort, was dispatched to Hiroshima. On August 8, he reported back to the Japanese government. The city, he said, was “completely wiped out.” What he had seen there was “unspeakable.”

“I’m very sorry to tell you this,” he wrote. “The so-called new-type bomb is actually an atomic bomb.” (Related: The U.S. planned to drop more than two atomic bombs on Japan.)

The bomb had exploded slightly northwest of the city’s centre. A Japanese report soon estimated that nearly 66,500 buildings had been razed or damaged. A subsequent U.S. report commented that Hiroshima had been “uniformly and extensively devastated” and noted that a bomb-induced “fire-storm” had contributed to the devastation.

Jiro Mitsuda, 12, was on his way to school that fateful morning. With burned skin hanging from his body and wearing only these shorts, he arrived at home and found his mother collapsed at the entrance, covered in blood. He begged a neighbour, “I don’t care what happens to me. Just please help my mother!” He somehow put out a fire on the second floor of their home by himself. His mother was saved, but Jiro died on August 11.

Photograph by Hiroki Kobayashi

Toshiko Omoto, 17, was wearing this blouse when the bomb exploded. When her father found her at a military hospital eight days later, she was so badly burned that he could identify her only by her voice. Weeks of painful treatments could not save her, and she died on October 2.

Tomie Yamane, 4, was living with her grandparents and dressed in this skirt when the bomb hit, killing them all. Her parents didn't learn of her death until they returned from China in 1946.

Kiyoko Fujita, 13, suffered severe burns over much of her body. Her mother cut away the clothing that had fused with her flesh and held her tightly. Her daughter seemed relieved, but she soon died.

Three-year-old Shinichi Tetsutani was riding this tricycle when the bomb fell. That night he died an excruciating death from burns, and he and his tricycle were buried together. Decades later, when Shinichi’s body was moved to the family grave, his father, Nobuo Tetsutani, donated the treasured toy to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum.

Photograph by Hiroki Kobayashi, National Geographic

A few weeks later, foreign correspondents began trying to get into Hiroshima. The first, Leslie Nakashima—who before the war had possessed both American and Japanese citizenship and been stranded in Japan for the duration of the conflict—confirmed in a United Press dispatch that the city of 300,000 had been obliterated. “I was dumbfounded with the destruction before me,” he wrote. At the city centre near where the bomb exploded, only the skeletons of three concrete buildings were still standing. It was being said, he reported, that Hiroshima might remain uninhabitable for 75 years.

Yet within 24 hours, survivors were already returning to the city to search for relatives, friends, and former homes in the rubble. Ms. Kondo’s family was among those who would return and rebuild their lives upon the ashes.

The aftermath

Soon tens of thousands of occupation troops arrived in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, destroyed by a second atomic bomb three days after Hiroshima. Even though the flattened cities were essentially graveyards, they were treated less than reverently by some of the “occupationaires,” as they called themselves. 

In Nagasaki, U.S. Marines cleared bomb debris to play a football game, which they dubbed the Atom Bowl. Over the next year, many soldiers came to Hiroshima’s ground zero to have their picture taken and collect “bomb souvenirs.” It was a “treasure area” of buried curios and heirlooms, recalled one visiting American doctor, who gathered up a few broken porcelain cups to use for ashtrays. But fear of possible residual radiation kept warier occupationaires away from the hypocentre site.

By the time Hersey arrived in Hiroshima in May 1946, survivors who had returned there were impoverished and starving. Weeds were pushing up through the rubble—among them, aptly named species like panic grass and feverfew.

When Hersey’s article appeared in the New Yorker, it created an international furor. One of his editors asked him to consider returning to the city to write a follow-up, but Hersey would not return for 40 years. When he finally visited Hiroshima, in 1985, he found that “a gaudy phoenix had risen from the ruinous desert of 1945.” The city’s population had grown to more than a million; trees lined new, broad avenues. There were, he observed, hundreds of bookstores and thousands of bars. (This 390-year-old bonsai survived the blast, but it's story was nearly forgotten.)

Another of Hersey’s protagonists, Toshiko Sasaki—a young clerk at the East Asia Tin Works at the time of the bombing who's now deceased—had also been stunned by the rapid rebuilding. “I wouldn’t say the city is being reconstructed,” she once commented, “so much as it’s a completely new city.”

Ground zero

When I interviewed Ms. Kondo in the lobby of a boxy, modern hotel on Peace Boulevard, she told me about August 6, 1945. Although she was too young then to remember the events herself, her mother told her about the day—but not until Ms. Kondo was much older.

"I could not ask my parents how I survived," she told me. "I knew if I asked, they would have to recall the worst day of their life. When I was 40, she told me what happened. The whole house crashed, everything on top of her body, which protected me. She was unconscious, and when she came to, it was dark. There was no light coming through. She heard a baby’s crying voice—it was mine. It was her own baby. She thought it was someone else’s. My mother called, 'Please, help!'—but no one came. Then she could see the small light coming through the [rubble]. And she moved little by little and made a hole, and got out with me." All they saw when they emerged was fire engulfing their neighbourhood.

Schoolchildren stream past a stately eucalyptus tree that survived the atomic bombing—one of some 170 hibakujumoku (survivor trees) remaining in Hiroshima. Seeds and saplings from the trees are shared around the world to spread the city’s message of peace.

Ms. Kondo also showed me a family photo album from the years that followed. Then she opened a plastic bag and took out the tiny pink cotton dress she’d worn that day. Remarkably intact, the garment brought the catastrophe to life for me. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is filled with such humanising artifacts: a broken watch that stopped exactly at 8:15 A.M., a scalded tricycle unearthed from the ruins.

After the interview, we strolled to a small Italian restaurant near the museum for lunch. I noticed that many American businesses had set up in the city; McDonalds and Starbucks franchises loosely ring Peace Memorial Park. After lunch we visited the memorials and monuments in the park. Visitors lined up before the Cenotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims, several bowing quietly before it. We walked back to the Aioi Bridge, the Enola Gay’s target. When the bomber dropped Little Boy, it drifted in the air and detonated slightly off-target. Where, I asked Ms. Kondo, is the literal hypocentre?

She led me to an empty, three-block-long street nearby and stopped in front of a low-rise medical building with graying tiles on its exterior. Next door was a 7-Eleven. Here, she said, and pointed to a small plaque in front of the medical building.

“The first atomic bomb used in the history of humankind exploded approximately 600 meters above this spot,” it read. “The city below was hit by heat rays of approximately 3,000 to 4,000 degrees C, along with a blast wind and radiation. Most people in the area lost their lives instantly.”

I found myself irrationally looking straight up into the air, almost as if expecting to see something there too, some impossible remnant or marker. But all I saw was the blue sky above—as sun-filled as it had been on the morning of August 6, 1945.

Lesley M. M. Blume is a journalist, historian, and New York Times bestselling author. Her new book, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World, was released on August 4.
Hiroki Kobayashi is a Tokyo based photographer who concentrates on cultural issues and is a regular contributor to National Geographic.

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