Oppenheimer, the Sequel

The firestorm-cloud that engulfed the city after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Public domain.

The scenes described in the following article are based on drawings and oral histories of survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. The City of Hiroshima collected these artifacts and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum exhibits the artworks.

August 6, 1945, was a Monday in Hiroshima, Japan. The morning was exceptionally clear. City residents dressed for work, filed into classrooms and rode streetcars to their shops and offices. Many people remember seeing a B-29 American bomber flying overhead as WWII wound down. Schoolboys could identify different aircraft by the sound of their engines. Hiroshima was one of the few Japanese cities of any size that the Americans had not bombed. Firebombing of Tokyo had nearly obliterated that city earlier in March.

So clear was the sky that some people on the ground witnessed the large bomb slipping from the silvery B-29. For most, it was the last thing they ever saw. The first atomic bomb in history exploded over the city center of Hiroshima at 8:15 am. Others were temporarily blinded by a pulse of light “brighter than a thousand suns”.

Seven rivers run through Hiroshima. The A-bomb detonated at 2,000 feet above the “hypocenter”, ground zero, where the Hankawa and Motoyasu rivers merge.  A fireball 1000 feet in diameter and nearly 8000 degrees Fahrenheit obliterated the city center, instantly vaporizing 80,000 to 100,000 people. Others, perhaps less fortunate, staggered through their city, deep wounds bleeding, blinded, burned and the misery of radiation sickness coming on.

Several elementary schools in downtown Hiroshima collapsed, killing most and  trapping other students under rubble. Survivors tried to free the children’s arms and legs pinned beneath huge beams and rafters. They were unsuccessful. Frantic parents and strangers brought the doomed children water to drink and washed the dust from their eyes. They abandoned them to the flames as the approaching firestorm consumed everyone in its path.

A mother wandered near the hypocenter carrying a child on her back talking to herself. “Where will I cremate my dead child”, looking for scraps of wood. “Where will I cremate my dead child?”

Some people beyond 1 kilometer from the hypocenter could survive, if only for a few days. Wounded who could walk despite second and third-degree burns instinctively turned to the rivers and ponds in city parks. They laid along the banks and gulped water, insatiable thirst being one symptom of acute radiation poisoning. Many died swallowing river water shoulder to shoulder with other corpses.

Soon after the flash and shock waves from the atomic blast leveled much of the city center, a huge column of fire swirled bodies and debris high into the sky with tornadic force. The resulting dramatic drop in atmospheric pressure caused the eyes of many survivors to fall out of their heads. Abdomens ruptured spilling internal organs onto the ground.

Blisters and burns of students at another girls’ school split open leaving their fingers melting and their skin hanging in shreds while the girls called for their Moms.

Massive doses of radiation destroyed the lymphatic systems of victims whose faces and heads swelled to twice normal size and sealing their bulging eyes and mouths.

Parched survivors searching for water drank “black rain” never knowing it was full of lethal radiation from the nuclear bomb explosion.

Near the river a woman’s body was seen, clothing burned off her back and her torso charred. The mother kneeling, bent over the infant cradled in her arms protecting it from the flames. Both dead.

Hiroshima had prepared for fire bombing by placing water cisterns throughout the city; concrete troughs to be kept full of water at all times. Fire brigades working the day of the A-bombing, comprised of young students escaped the intense heat rays and firestorm by hiding in these cisterns where they later were found knotted together, charred and dead.

Wood debris from destroyed buildings was stacked into pyres around the city and thousands of unidentifiable bodies were cremated in groups of ten or fifty corpses at a time. The flames burned the bodies but not their heads which rolled off the pyres repeatedly. Soldiers used scoops to throw the heads back into the flames. “It is hell if you see that. Hell is exactly like that”, one soldier testified. The cremations continued across Hiroshima until the end of September

Bodies packed into Hiroshima’s rivers where they had sought refuge. Stacked two or three deep beneath bridges and trestles they died there. The river currents at low tide and over time washed the bodies out of the city, through the estuary and out to sea.

A soldier who survived had returned to his unit to find his comrades standing at attention, saluting in silence. When touched them they crumbled into ashes.

Doctors, injured, some carried back to their clinics, administered what care they could, cleaning wounds, stabilizing broken bones, removing glass shards from their patients’ flesh. Many people died there and were cremated on the clinics’ grounds.

“A flash, a giant wind, and then the collective moan, the groans of death, The atomic scream”.

Hundreds of survivor stories were collected in the years immediately after WWII. After decades embargoed by the U.S. these memoirs are published in books by the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum has collected over 3000 drawings from A-bomb survivors, most of whom are now dead. Some of these drawings are displayed at the Peace Museum, but most remain to be cataloged with the name of the survivor, location and time of the scene.  The story of the 15kiloton atomic bombing that destroyed a populous city but not its people. The goal is to make a database of all these survivor drawings, and make these graphic portraits accessible to the general public.

And somehow, someway, the goal is to prevent another atomic bombing from happening ever again.