It was on 6th August, 1945 at 8:15 am that an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first atom bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. The bomb impacted an area of over 4 square miles that was immediately and entirely destroyed. More than 66000 people were killed and over 69000 grievously injured. Although the impact of the blast and the resultant pressure waves were akin to those resulting from normal bomb explosions, several fires started raging in the city instantly due to heat radiation from the atom bomb explosion. Several fires started due to the collapsing of buildings, damaged electrical fittings, and toppling of stoves.
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Casualties primarily resulted due to flash burns that were caused because of instant radiation at the time of blast. Several people suffered from severe burns from the resulting fires. The pressure created by the blast caused serious mechanical injuries by way of collapsing buildings and debris that were hurled by the impact of the explosion. The actual number of injured due to the blast directly was less as compared to the other effects such as radiation and heat. The blast inflicted severe damages to everything within a radius of a mile from the blast site.
The US and its allies had been fighting against Japan since 1941 which had by 1945 ultimately lost control over most of the adjoining areas and islands. What remained in its control was only the Japanese homeland. President Truman issued the Potsdam Declaration on 26th July, 1945 calling for unconditional surrender by Japan under predetermined terms of peace. At the same time warning was given to Japan of severe consequences in its failure to comply with the terms of the Potsdam Declaration which was duly signed and authorized by Prime Minister Attlee of the UK and President Truman of the US. The declaration also had the consent of Chiang Kai Shek, President of China.
After Japan’s rejection of the ultimatums, President Truman authorized use of the atomic bomb against Japan. Although there were severe adversities and risk in using the atomic bomb, it had become imperative to inflict a blow on Japan that would incapacitate the country from causing further harm to the US and its allies. Exhaustive studies were conducted by military researchers in this regard, and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were made the targets since they had so far not been attacked by the Allied forces (Peter Wyden, 1984).
Before the bombing Hiroshima was an industrial city and had considerable military importance. Several military camps were located in the vicinity of the city which was also a supply and logistics centre for the Japanese army. The head quarters of the Fifth Division of the Japanese army were located in the city and it was from here that the entire defence of south Japan was controlled.
Hiroshima was an important centre for communications, a point for storage and a central area for troops to gather. Ironically the city had not been attacked so far by America presumably to measure the damages that could be caused by the impending atomic attack. It was unfortunate that the atomic explosion wiped out Hiroshima’s character as a major city of Japan. More than 25% of the city’s population was killed in a single blow and an additional 25% were severely injured.
Consequently the normalcy in the city was entirely shattered; almost all the facilities were extensively destroyed within a radius of three miles from the site of blast and there were widespread damages for several miles. However the impact on the underground facilities within the city was very negligible. Water pipes were found to be functioning normally and damages to underground facilities was due to collapsing building and not due to the bomb explosion. It is believed that this was possible because the bomb was made to explode before it touched ground.
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By the end of 1945 the death figures due to the atomic explosion in the city had reached 140,000. About 20% of the deaths resulted from illnesses and injuries from radiation poisoning and later several more deaths were reported due to leukaemia and cancers. Unfortunately majority of the victims were civilians. Within a few days of the subsequent atomic bombing on Nagasaki, Japan expressed its desire to surrender and signed the Instrument of Surrender on 2nd September 1945, thus putting an end to World War II. Japan had to adopt the Non Nuclear Principles whereby restrictions were imposed and it could not develop nuclear weapons (J. Poolos, 2008).
Millions of degrees of temperature resulted in the initial stage of the explosion. The emission of light due to the blast was at least ten times more than the sun’s brightness. The explosion immediately gave rise to different radiations such as alpha and beta particles in addition to the gamma rays which were responsible for making the impact of the atom bomb more severe. Thousands of people suffered from radiation sickness in Japan for several years following the blast.
Radiation adversely impacts the blood in the body which impairs the blood making organs such as the lymph nodes, spleen and bone marrow. In severe cases of radiation the tissues of body parts and organs became dead which implied certain death for the victims within a few days. Surveys found that almost everybody within a one kilometre radius suffered from severe radiation, while those who were further away suffered but to a lesser extent.
The atomic bomb created total chaos from which it was very difficult to recoup by any state or city. Japan was shattered and had no choice but to surrender without any conditions. Upon its surrender, Winston Churchill commented that this action had made the war come to an end and hence saved the lives of over a million Americans. Military officials in the USA felt that it was imperative to demonstrate US military power to force Japan to surrender.
Although the country’s supply lines had been disrupted, its air force was in bad shape and the city of Tokyo was in ruin, they believed that a drastic action against Japan was necessary to make it bow down. Japan had so far never been defeated and had refused to give in even after such large scale losses. The US decision to use atomic weapons against Japan has been the first and last so far as also a very controversial issue in the history of warfare. Together, the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had killed over 110,000 and grievously injured about 130,000 people. Another 230,000 people were dead in Japan by 1950 as a consequence of radiation related complications.
It is believed by military experts that if the US had decided to invade Japan without using the atom bomb, its forces would have had a very difficult time in view of the robust defences and the unique topography of the country. Millions of American soldiers may have been killed in addition to the loss to civilian life in Japan. In avoiding a direct military assault it was felt that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would save lot of lives.
However this reasoning is not acceptable universally, especially in view of the fact that Russia had officially declared war on Japan two days after the bombing of Hiroshima. This implied that if Russia had joined the war before the bombing it could ensure an unconditional surrender from Japan. Some have gone to the extent in saying that President Truman feared Soviet attempts in dominating the post war situation in Asia just as was done in East Europe, and hence hurriedly directed his forces to bomb Japan in making it to surrender before Russia entered the fray in exercising its right to influence the peace settlements. There may have also been an intention to caution Russia with the new found capability of the weapons of mass destruction (Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, 2005).
The question whether the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a prudent military decision or resulted in unwarranted tragedies will always remain unanswered. All those who had made the decisions as also those who survived the tragedy are no more in this world. But the lingering effects continue to haunt mankind in terms of the memories of the appalling casualties to civilians, the scourge of radiation and the psychological effects of the destructive force that was used. Now it can only be expected that those who wield the authority in terms of making military decisions will keep in mind the annihilation and suffering of mankind at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
J. Poolos, The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 2008, Chelsea House Publications.
Peter Wyden, Day One: Before Hiroshima and After, 1984, Simon & Schuster.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, 2005, Belknap Press.