At 2:00 a.m. on August 6th, 1945, an American B-29 bomber took off from the Pacific Island of Tinian bound for Hiroshima, Japan. The crew consisted of twelve men. There was something else on board – an atomic bomb that had never been used on any nation in history. The United States had declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and since then the two countries had fought in the air, on the sea, and on land. By August 1945, the Japanese military was out of ships, planes, and, most of all, men to fight. But, they still hadn’t surrendered to the Allies. The atomic bomb on the Enola Gay was going to be a blow so destructive that the Japanese military would have no other choice but to capitulate. On the morning of August 6th, the citizens of Hiroshima were going about their daily routines unaware of the impending disaster.
The Explosion of the Bomb
At 8:15 a.m., the atomic bomb exploded about 2,000 feet above downtown Hiroshima. In that instant, the course of history changed forever. Eyewitness accounts spoke of a burst of light similar to a magnesium flash, although the color seemed to be white for some people and red or even blue for others. And then, just a few seconds later, there was a deafening noise and the onset of terrible heat. Thousands of people who were closest to the epicenter were vaporized in an instant.
The science behind the ironically named “Little Boy” bomb was actually quite simple, but nobody knew what the effects would be. The people of Hiroshima were the first to find out. The atomic bomb was a gun-type weapon with a uranium core. A hollow cylinder of uranium, i.e., the bullet, was thrust down a barrel making contact with a solid mass of the same material, thus creating a fission chain reaction that led to detonation.
The Physical Effects of Little Boy
Hiroshima was engulfed in flames caused by the explosion, and there was no way to put out the fires. Most of the casualties in the city were burn victims; patterns of undershirts and suspenders were like grotesque tattoos on skin. It was impossible to tell who was male or female because naked victims were scorched. It is said that at least 70,000 people died instantly in Hiroshima, but it was impossible to pinpoint an accurate number of fatalities.
The explosion of the atomic bomb emitted gamma rays and neutrons which nobody was able to see or feel at first. Radiation began to destroy the bodies of survivors at the cellular level. A new drug called penicillin was brought to Hiroshima by Allied doctors and it alleviated the suffering to a degree. Alas, it wasn’t enough to reverse the deadly radiation poisoning. Months and years after Little Boy flattened Hiroshima those people who had survived the initial blast – apparently unhurt – began to perish. Cancer of the liver, lymph nodes, thyroid, and salivary glands claimed innumerable victims.
Japan surrendered on August 15th, 1945. In a speech made to his people on the radio, Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan would cease hostilities. Most Japanese had never heard Hirohito speak. The lives of the “hibakusha,” or “bomb-affected people,” were never the same after the war. How could they have returned to the lives they had? Their families and friends were dead. Their homes were gone. They were, in a sense, orphans. It wasn’t until 1957 when the hibakusha were given access to free health care. Finally, the Japanese government was willing to concede the survivors had been medical casualties of war.
More than seventy years later, the world still struggles to understand the horrific events in Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. Japan remains the only nation to be struck by a nuclear weapon and these devices have not been used in combat since World War II. The debate about whether using the atomic “Little Boy” bomb was the right thing to do continues to this day. Did President Truman take the best course of action by ordering the bomb to be dropped on Japan? Or, did he along with his advisors want to show the world that the U.S. was superior to all other countries by virtue of possessing nuclear technology?