Hiroshima: Killing on an industrial scale

It has been 70 years since the United States became the only nation in history that deployed two nuclear weapons against civilian populations.

On August 6, 1945, a B-29 known as the Enola Gay took off from Tinian island, north of Guam. After flying six hours to the main Japanese island of Honshu, pilot Paul Tibbets flew his aircraft over the city of Hiroshima released «Little Boy», an atomic bomb with the explosive power of 16 kilotons of TNT.

Together two bombs eventually killed an estimated 200,000 Japanese civilians.

Little already remained of Tokyo long before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hiroshima was one of the largest military centers provisioning the Japanese army and navy.

Originally the chosen targets for the attack were Niigata (a military base and industrial center), Yokohama (an industrial center), Kokura (which held the largest arsenal and warehouse), and Kyoto (also an industrial center).

Nagasaki was a haphazard target. The plane originally flew to Kokura, but because of cloud cover it was unable to release its payload and it turned toward Nagasaki instead.

Within a week of each nuclear attack, thousands who had escaped death began to experience inexplicable combinations of symptoms: high fever, dizziness, nausea, headaches, diarrhea, bloody stools, nosebleeds and whole-body weakness. Their hair fell out in large clumps, their wounds secreted extreme amounts of pus, and their gums swelled and bled.

Purple spots appeared on their bodies, signs of hemorrhaging beneath the skin. Infections ravaged their internal organs. Within a few days of the onset of symptoms, many people lost consciousness, mumbled deliriously and died in extreme pain; others languished for weeks before either dying or slowly recovering.

Even those who had suffered no external injuries fell sick and died. In the ruins of his small tuberculosis hospital in Nagasaki, Dr. Tatsuichiro Akizuki likened the situation to the Black Death pandemic that ravaged Europe in the 1300s.

A second wave of radiation illnesses and deaths swept through Nagasaki in late August through early October. From Akizuki’s perspective on top of Motohara Hill, the illness carved a clear geographical path: From the bottom of the hill upward, people died in order of their distance from the bomb’s hypocenter. Akizuki called this phenomenon the “concentric circles of death.”

By February 1945, Russia and Japan were on the same page and proposed a Far East peace conference that would include Russia, China, Great Britain, the United States, France, and Japan. Japan wrongly believed that Russia would not enter the Pacific war on the side of the Allies.

The USSR’s entry into the war against Japan on Aug. 9, 1945 had a decisive impact on Japan’s decision to capitulate. When the fate of the Kwantung command was almost a foregone conclusion, Emperor Hirohito decided to surrender after panicked reports from his military commanders in Manchuria.

Immediately after the bombings, high-level U.S. officials publicly — and adamantly — rebuffed news reports about the bombs’ horrific aftereffects. Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs, dismissed these reports as propaganda.

Later that year, Groves testified before the U.S. Senate that death from high-dose radiation exposure is “without undue suffering” and “a very pleasant way to die.”

Killing had become possible on an industrial scale by WWII with rifles and machine guns mass-produced in factories, as well as a wide range of products needed to support multimillion-man armies.

Destroying cities was thus the key to winning wars and an integral part of Allied strategy against Germany and in Japan. For Japan the aftermath of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was as calamitous as the fate of Dresden and Hamburg.