These haunting images of Hiroshima before and after the atomic bomb reveal a city razed and a people traumatized by unprecedented devastation.
Air-raid sirens were a familiar sound for the approximately 280,000 Hiroshima residents that remained in the city in August 1945.
At the time, American B-29 bombers regularly soared over the nearby coast en route to Lake Biwa, a strategic rendezvous point about 220 miles northeast of the city. Hiroshima was one of the few major Japanese cities that had been spared the wrath of United States airstrikes, though air-raid sirens sounded nearly every morning anyway.
What the residents of Hiroshima did not know was why they had so far avoided any airstrikes. They did not know they had been specially selected as the pilot site for an unprecedented weapon of mass destruction.
The aftermath in Hiroshima following the detonation of the first atomic bomb used in warfare was also unprecedented, which made it all the more difficult for its citizens to rebuild.
Why Was The Atomic Bomb Dropped On Hiroshima?
Hiroshima was an important military base for the Japanese, it was a hub of communications, and it was fortified by anti-aircraft guns. There were also an estimated 40,000 Imperial soldiers stationed there. As far as war strategy was concerned, it was an optimal headquarters to cut off. Also, as it had so far been spared bombing and airstrikes, the full effects of the atomic bomb itself could be studied.
But there was another reason the United States targeted Hiroshima in particular. As a cosmopolitan hub on flat land, the sheer devastation of the atomic bomb could be witnessed by the world.
"Hiroshima is compact," Alex Wellerstein, a historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology told NPR in 2015. "If you put a bomb like this in the middle of it, you end up destroying almost the entirety of the city."
And the States wanted to show off that power in order to bring a swift end to World War II. Thus, Hiroshima was chosen to be the guinea pig for the first use of a nuclear weapon in warfare.
That weapon was dubbed "Little Boy," a gun-style bomb that would blow when a uranium projectile was fired through a gun barrel at another uranium target. Once the two collided, they formed an unstable element and the nuclear reactions that followed resulted in an atomic explosion.
Little Boy was not tested before it was detonated over Hiroshima, but its creators were confident it would work — and it did.
The Events Of August 6, 1945
It's likely that when those sirens rang out on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, the residents of Hiroshima continued on with their daily routines. Imperial radars had only picked up a small number of planes at high altitude, so they believed no major threat was expected.
But one of those planes was the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber that had been rigorously outfitted to transport and drop Little Boy.
"I saw a black dot in the sky," recalled survivor Fujio Torikoshi. "Suddenly, it 'burst' into a ball of blinding light that filled my surroundings. A gust of hot wind hit my face; I instantly closed my eyes and knelt down to the ground."
Just after 8:15 a.m., a flash of blinding light erupted over the city. Within a matter of seconds, Hiroshima transformed into an inferno as Little Boy detonated 1,900 feet above the city center.
"Where we had seen a clear city two minutes before, we could now no longer see the city," recalled Enola Gay's navigator, Theodore Van Kirk. "We could see smoke and fires creeping up the sides of the mountains."
When Little Boy collided with Hiroshima, its surface temperature reached 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Nearly everything within 1,600 feet of the bomb's blast zone was cremated. According to UCLA, anything and anyone within a mile was destroyed. Fires raged up to four miles from the crash site. Around 70 percent of the city's buildings collapsed.
Almost instantly, some 80,000 people, about 30 percent of Hiroshima's population, had been killed. Among them were non-natives, including foreign laborers and American prisoners of war.
The bomb also missed its precise target, the Aioi Bridge, and instead detonated directly over the Shima Surgical Clinic.
The Horrifying Aftermath In Hiroshima
Because the residents had been given an all-clear after the earlier air-raid warning, many were outside when the bomb detonated. More than 50 percent of the casualties died from burns while many others who did not succumb to the initial blast or the fires in the immediate Hiroshima aftermath later died of radiation exposure. Survivors recalled near-lifeless, scorched bodies wandering the streets for a few seconds before they fell to the ground and died.
Meanwhile, because ground zero happened to be above a hospital, many of the city's doctors and nurses were killed or injured in the blast. The city was thrown into chaos as those still alive scrambled to create makeshift hospitals to aid the wounded.
As the weeks progressed, citizens began to feel the effects of radiation poisoning and a misinformed public believed this condition to be contagious. As a result, those who were suffering with radiation poisoning were ostracized from their communities.
The United States had little aid to offer. Scientists on the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bombs, claimed to know little about the biological effects of nuclear fallout. Even the deputy medical director at one of the project's laborites admitted that, "The idea was to explode the damned thing... We weren't terribly concerned with the radiation."
Just three days later, the approximate 200,000 residents of Nagasaki were subjected to a much larger bomb, "Fat Man," as it detonated over their city and wiped out 60,000 people instantly.
Beyond those who were killed or injured, the true scale of the Hiroshima aftermath revealed itself for generations to come as health issues like birth defects and cancer continued to plague those exposed to a blast unlike anything the world had ever seen before.
The city of Hiroshima estimates that over 200,000 people died as a result of the bomb, whether in the blast itself or due to the effects of radiation later.
As one minister who was witness to the explosion and the aftermath in Hiroshima recalled, "The feeling I had was that everyone was dead. The whole city was destroyed... I thought this was the end of Hiroshima — of Japan — of humankind... This was God's judgment on man."
See the harrowing devastation of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in the gallery above.
Following this look at the aftermath in Hiroshima, read the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the "hibakusha" or survivor who lived through both atomic bombings. Then, learn about the USS Indianapolis, the ship that delivered parts of Little Boy before succumbing to the worst maritime disaster in U.S. Naval history.