Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In light of current events, I thought a few teachers might be interested in this reading I prepared for my classes.

Feel free to use it any way you like.

If anyone would like a copy in document form, feel free to send me an email.

You can also find many similar materials on sale at Middle School History and Tips for Teachers.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

            Colonel Paul Tibbets checked last-minute details one final time. Gas gauges showed “full” and all four engines were running smooth. Crew members reported over the intercom. Everything was ready. Tibbets glanced at his instrument panel and pulled back on his throttles. Slowly, his B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay,[1] picked up speed and headed down the runway.

            More than a thousand miles to the north, on the island of Honshu, lay the target: Hiroshima.


            In the weeks leading up to this moment Tibbets and members of the special 509th Bomber Group had practiced hard for some “unknown mission.” Now the mystery had been solved. The night before Colonel Tibbets had called his air crews together. At last, they had orders. He could explain what their training was all about. A new type of “atomic bomb,” he told the men, was about to be unveiled. A film of the first atomic test (on July 16, 1945 in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico) was shown. Then the lights came back up and Tibbets asked for questions. Even his veteran audience was too stunned to respond.

            When the Enola Gay rose into the sky the next morning it carried a single bomb. It was a weapon unlike anything ever seen before. Nicknamed “Little Boy,” it was ten feet long, 28 inches in diameter, and weighed 9,000 pounds. Most of this weight was “machinery” to make the bomb explode. The destructive power would come from an atomic chain reaction unleashed inside a 22-pound lump of enriched uranium. A little larger than a softball, this mass would generate [produce] an explosive force equal to 20,000 tons of TNT.[2] 

            The men aboard the Enola Gay were about to change history; but their five-and- a-half hour flight to Hiroshima was uneventful. As they approached the Japanese coast a pair of escort planes could be seen checking weather and taking film. At Tibbets’ command everyone put on special goggles to protect their eyes. Co-pilot Robert A. Lewis was busy writing in his journal. The bombardier, Major Thomas Ferebee, had been “very quiet.” Then, with the plane over Hiroshima, Lewis scribbled: “There will be a short intermission while we bomb our target.”

            At exactly 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945 the silent Ferebee pushed his bomb switch. “Little Boy” fell away and Enola Gay rose suddenly as the weight was released. The timing device was set to go off 45 seconds later, while the bomb was in mid-air, hundreds of feet above the city.

            The bomb worked perfectly. That is: it was going to kill more human beings at one time than anything man had yet invented. First there was a blinding flash of light, as if a second sun had appeared in the sky. The fireball flashed and grew until it was a hundred yards in diameter. Heat released by the atomic reaction was measured in thousands of degrees. 

            In seconds four square miles of the city ceased to exist. People and buildings close to the center of the blast were reduced to vapor and ash. Stone walls a third of a mile from ground zero [the point of explosion] melted. Across a wider area 60,000 homes, schools, hospitals and factories were destroyed or damaged. A huge column of flame, smoke and radioactive particles rose high in the atmosphere. At 10,000 feet a head like a mushroom formed. The black cloud continued rising, churning like an ugly beast. Seven miles up a second mushroom head formed, blotting Hiroshima from view. No longer in a joking mood, all Lewis could write was: “My God!” At 8:20 a.m. Enola Gay began turning toward home. Tibbets broke radio silence long enough to inform listeners at his base: “Mission successful.” 

Below, the city was a scene of unthinkable horror.


            At the moment “Little Boy” exploded, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was sitting at home, a mile away, looking over the morning paper. Suddenly, a bright flash lit his page. Before he could rise from his chair, the force of the giant blast wave sent him flying. There was a sound of shattering glass and splintering wood. Then his house came crashing down round him. 

            Toshiko Sasaki was at her desk in a nearby factory when the bomb hit, destroying the building. Somehow, she found herself buried under book cases and their contents. Her leg was broken, bent almost double.

At a nearby hospital a young doctor heard a roar and felt the building rock. Walls and ceiling came crashing down on top of the beds. His eyeglasses were torn from his face. Many patients and medical staff were killed instantly. Others were badly cut by flying glass. Blood was everywhere, even on walls. 

            At exactly 8:15 a.m. Shigeru Shimoyama was hard at work in his company’s warehouse. He, too, heard the blast and felt himself flying through the air. When he came too a little later he was impaled on a broken wood post, with five nails stuck in his back.

            Thirteen-year-old Yoshitaka Kawamoto was at his desk in school when “Little Boy” exploded half a mile away.[3] Before he could ask himself what the explosion was, the school was torn apart. Two-thirds of his classmates died instantly. He was buried in wreckage, but managed to crawl out and consider his situation. Three of his upper teeth were broken. A piece of wood stuck in his left arm like an arrow. After rigging a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, he began searching for survivors. A hand sticking up led him to his best friend. The boy’s back was broken and he was missing an eye. The two youngsters spoke a few words. Then his friend died quietly.

            With flames licking at the splintered remains of the school, Kawamoto fled to safety. He could hear students trapped in the ruins singing the school song to let rescuers know they were alive. Behind him, the body of his friend stared at him with its one good eye.

            Hara Tamiki had risen from bed a few minutes before Enola Gay released its deadly load. Wearing nothing but shorts he headed toward his bathroom. Now the bomb blast ripped apart his home and he felt a stunning blow to the head. When he finally recovered his senses, he was bleeding and his shorts were gone. The wreckage around him was on fire. So he gathered what clothes he could and fled. In his yard he noticed a large maple tree snapped like a stick.

            In every direction scenes of horror filled the view. Four thousand soldiers of the Japanese Second Army, stationed near the center of town, had been wiped out. A handful of U. S. airmen, shot down during an earlier raid and held in the city castle, were incinerated. Countless civilians were horribly burned or buried in wreckage. As survivors scrambled from the ruins, they could hear screams for help from beneath the rubble. Fumio Shigeto, for one, was “lucky.” At the moment “Little Boy” exploded he was standing in line for a trolley car. Everyone in front was burned to death by the fireball. 

            A corner of a building shielded Shigeto and he survived. 

            The people of Hiroshima had no idea what hit them. Many were in shock. Others were so badly injured they could not have cared what kind of weapon had been used—even if someone could have explained how the atomic bomb worked. Terrified and confused, some cried out that more planes were coming with more of these awful bombs.

            With hospitals, fire and police stations destroyed, survivors headed for the banks of the Ota River. Others stumbled out of the city in search of safety or simply fled the hell around them. Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto saw hundreds of victims streaming along the Koi Highway. “The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of the pain, held their arms up [away from their burned bodies] as if carrying something in both hands...Many were naked or in shreds of clothing.” Michiko Yamakoa, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, was among those headed for the countryside. Spotting a friend, she called to her, but at first the other girl could not recognize her. “Your nose and eyebrows,” she explained, “are gone.”

            By 9:00 a.m. Shigeru Shimoyama had pulled loose from the nails in his back and headed for the river. Along the way he saw a sight he would never forget. Before him was a pink horse, standing, head down, its skin seared off. The beast looked at him as he passed—tried to follow—but could not.

            Other survivors uncovered Toshiko Sasaki from the piles of books in her wrecked office. There was no time to treat her smashed leg. They left her under a shed with two other victims. One was a woman whose chest was crushed. The other was a man burned so badly his face looked like a tomato. Nearby, a young mother clutched a dead child and begged passers-by to find her husband. “You’ve got to find him,” she sobbed. “He loved our baby so much. I want him to see her once more.”[4] In a park along the river, Reverend Tanimoto stopped to assist others. As he lifted one burned woman from a boat, “her skin slipped off in huge glove-like pieces.” Working amid scenes of horror he had to keep reminding himself:  “These are human beings.” 

            Many who survived the blast and flames began dying that night from radiation sickness. Seven-year-old Shizuko Iura neared death. Still, she had strength to try to comfort her mother. Shizuko’s father, a soldier, was stationed far away from home. Now the little girl pleaded, “Please stay alive, Mother. If both of us die, he will be very lonely.” She spoke briefly about friends and relatives she loved, called out, “Papa! Papa!” and died.

            The toll on this day was 90,000 killed.

Two of the lucky survivors.


            Even in the face of vast destruction the Japanese hesitated to surrender. On August 9, a second atomic bomb fell on the city of Nagasaki. There surrounding hills cushioned the blast and loss of life was not quite so terrible. Still, the destruction was staggering. Again a brilliant ball of flame appeared over the doomed city. Then there was a roar, “as though the sky were being scooped out with a sharp tool.” High overhead, the American co-pilot studied the awful scene below. Then he called back to bombardier Kermit K. Beahan, “Well, Bea, there’s a hundred thousand Japs you just killed.” Later a Japanese author summed it up grimly: “A large city had disappeared in a twinkling, from one explosion.” 

            The fate of Nagasaki was awful. Those exposed to the fireball were roasted. Thousands were trapped in smashed buildings. Fires whipped by high winds spread flames in all directions. Fujie Urata had left her mother earlier that morning to go for a visit. Now she raced back to find her house gone and her mother dead. The pumpkin field in front of the home was blown clean. Nothing remained, except a woman’s head where the pumpkin crop had been. A gold tooth gleamed from the wide open mouth. Fujie could not recognize the victim.

            Elsewhere, Fujie’s sister, Tatsue, saw a woman burned till “her face was one blister,” holding two equally scarred children. The blinded mother begged Tatsue to take them; but the girl knew all three would soon be dead. In another burning neighborhood a mother “rushed around half-crazy, trying to find [her daughter] until she was overcome by smoke and collapsed.” She suffered serious burns but could not rescue the girl. By a twist of fate, the same woman’s husband had been visiting Hiroshima three days before and died there.

            Once more, a large part of the city was pulverized, and survivors fled into the surrounding countryside. One boy saw them coming along a road and remarked that the burned people “looked like a parade of roast chickens.” Another girl, who tried to enter the city to reach her home, asked all passing women if they had seen her mother. Many were blistered and unrecognizable and might have been her mother! As at Hiroshima the explosion was followed in some areas by large greasy raindrops. High above, moisture surrounding the pillar of smoke and hot dust was condensing and falling like black rain.             

            Nagasaki was reduced to “a hill of ashes.” Where once had stood a great city nothing remained but charred bodies and white ash. Thousands were dead, more thousands injured. Yet the dying would not end quickly, even after Japan finally agreed to surrender.
            As the days and weeks passed, countless victims died in agony. Often, the cause was radiation poisoning.[5] Symptoms, though not always fatal, varied. Many victims lost their hair and suffered from high fever and diarrhea. Blood disorders might develop. Sores broke out all over the body. Wounds refused to heal. Men were made sterile. Pregnant women miscarried. One nine-year-old boy who survived the attacks remembered watching his mother slowly die. Thirteen days after Hiroshima was hit, her hair had fallen out. There was a deep wound in her back which never closed and her breathing was labored [difficult; hard work]. One day he tried to feed her a little soup. She struggled to swallow, took a last breath, let it out, and her suffering was ended forever.[6]


            In the weeks and months to come men and women round the world paused to wonder. What would future wars be like if one side—or both—employed these terrible tools of death? In the days following the attacks at least one survivor interrupted a priest who was offering support. “If your God is so good and kind,” he asked angrily, “how can he let people suffer like this?”

            Perhaps the two atomic bombs had to be used. Perhaps not.           

There was disagreement then. There still is. 

            Whatever the case war, and mankind’s future, changed forever during those grim days of August 1945. The shadow of the mushroom cloud has darkened humanity’s path ever since.

Your work:

1. Pretend you were in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when the bombs hit. Write about what happened to you, your neighbors, family and friends.

[1] The plane was named after Tibbets’ mother.
[2] At the time the United States had only two atomic bombs ready for use. Because their designs were different they were tagged with nicknames to suit them. A shorter, thicker bomb was called “Fat Man.”
[3] Normally, Kawamoto remembered, students looked forward to air-raid warnings. At such times they were allowed to stop work and seek a safer spot.
[4] The poor woman refused to give up the dead child for four days.
[5] Japan agreed to stop all fighting on August 15. A peace treaty was signed on September 2, 1945.
[6] Counting those who died from lingering affects like cancer, many ten or twenty years later, the toll at Hiroshima is said to have reached 138,000. Losses at Nagasaki were probably around 49,000. By comparison the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001 killed about 3,500.


  1. My problem: You fail to provide a balanced lesson:

    The Japanese invaded China - they raped (The Rape of Nanking), looted, killed and enslaved tens of thousands of innocent Chinese, Japanese prison of war camps were incredibly cruel, and an invasion of Japan would have resulted in 250,000 American casualties, and, Russia was preparing to invade the Japan, if you were a an adviser to President Truman in 1945 would you have recommended and invasion or the use of atomic bombs or another policy .... write a memorandum to the president advocating a policy to end the war.

    While you clearly oppose the dropping of the bombs I believe our role to encourage our student to explore options, collect data, and draw and defend conclusions .... in spite of our personal views.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. The lines near the end pretty much sum it up: "Perhaps the two atomic bombs had to be used. Perhaps not. There was disagreement then. There still is."

      I don't "clearly oppose" the dropping of the bombs and know all about the sins of the Japanese. I only want students to realize how horrific these weapons are.