Nagasaki – the second atomic bomb

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima by Hiromichi Matsuda

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima by Hiromichi Matsuda

At Potsdam on the 26th July the Allies had issued a declaration calling on the Japanese to surrender or face:

the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland

After the Hiroshima bomb on the 6th August the United States had widely publicised the nature of the new bomb and its destructive power, its awesome potential was immediately recognised by people around the world. At the same time President Truman had re-inforced the Potsdam declaration with a more explicit message about what would happen if Japan did not surrender:

We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.

It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth…

The Japanese government met on 7th August but were still not prepared to accept the Allied surrender terms.

With no sign of any surrender forthcoming from Japan, the military team responsible for the Atomic bombing programme were still under orders (at this time) to continue the bombing, using the bombs as they became available. They had the ‘Fat Man’ available and knew that a third bomb would become available later in August. Because of impending bad weather over Japan the decision to use ‘Fat Man’ was brought forward from 11th to the 9th August.

The original target for the second atomic bomb was the city of Kokura but this was obscured by smoke from a conventional American bombing raid on nearby Yahata the previous day. The B-29 ‘Bockscar’ piloted by Major Charles W. Sweeney therefore diverted to the secondary target, the city of Nagasaki.

In Urakami Hospital, Nagasaki, Dr Tatsuichiro Akizuki was just returning to his ward round which had been delayed by an earlier air raid warning. The two high flying planes seen approaching Nagasaki just before 11am had been assumed to be reconnaissance planes, and no air raid warning had been given:

I heard a low droning sound, like that of distant aeroplane engines. “What’s that?” I said. “The all-clear has gone, hasn’t it?” At the same time the sound of the plane’s engines, growing louder and louder, seemed to swoop down over the hospital. I shouted: “It’s an enemy plane! Look out – take cover!” .

As I said so, I pulled the needle out of the patient and threw myself beside thebed. ‘ There was a blinding white flash of light, and the next moment — Bang! Crack! A huge impact like a gigantic blow smote down upon our bodies, our heads and our hospital. I lay flat — I didn’t know whether or not of my own volition. Then down came piles of debris, slamming into my back.

The hospital has been hit, I thought. I grew dizzy, and my ears sang.

Some minutes or so must have passed before I staggered to my feet and looked around. The air was heavy with yellow smoke; white flakes of powder drifted about; it was strangely dark.

Thank God, I thought — I’m not hurt! But what about the patients? As it became brighter, little by little our situation grew clearer. Miss Murai, who had been assisting me with the pneumo-thorax, struggled to her feet beside me. She didn’t seem to have been seriously injured, though she was completely covered with white dust. “Hey, cheer up!” I said. “We’re not hurt, thank God!”

[ Akizuki struggled to make sense of what had happened because he realised that if they had received a direct hit then they would have suffered much more structural damage to the hospital.]

If the bomb had actually hit the hospital, I thought, they would have been far more badly injured. “What’s happened to the second and third floors?” I cried. But all they answered was “Help me! Help!”

One of them said: “Mr Yamaguchi has been buried under the debris. Help him.”

No one knew what had happened. A huge force had been released above our heads. What it was, nobody knew. Had it been several tons of bombs, or the suicidal destruction of a plane carrying a heavy bomb-load?

Dazed, I retreated into the consulting room, in which the only upright object on the rubbish-strewn floor was my desk. I went and sat on it and looked out of the window at the yard and the outside world. There was not a single pane of glass in the window, not even a frame — all had been completely blown away.

Out in the yard dun-coloured smoke or dust cleared little by little. I saw figures running. Then, looking to the south-west, I was stunned. The sky was as dark as pitch, covered with dense clouds of smoke; under that blackness, over the earth, hung a yellow-brown fog. Gradually the veiled ground became visible, and the view beyond rooted me to the spot with horror.

All the buildings I could see were on fire: large ones and small ones and those with straw-thatched roofs. Further off along the valley, Urakami Church, the largest Catholic church in the east, was ablaze. The technical school, a large two-storeyed wooden building, was on fire, as were many houses and the distant ordnance factory. Electricity poles were wrapped in flame like so many pieces of kindling.

Trees on the nearby hills were smoking, as were the leaves of sweet potatoes in the fields. To say that everything burned is not enough. It seemed as if the earth itself emitted fire and smoke, flames that writhed up and erupted from underground. The sky was dark, the ground was scarlet, and in between hung clouds of yellowish smoke. Three kinds of colour -— black, yellow and scarlet — loomed ominously over the people, who ran about like so many ants seeking to escape.

What had happened? Urakami Hospital had not been bombed — I understood that much. But that ocean of fire, that sky of smoke! It seemed like the end of the world. I ran out into the garden. Patients who were only slightly hurt came up to me, pleading for aid. I shouted at them: “For heaven’s sake! You’re not seriously wounded!” One patient said: “Kawaguchi and Matsuo are trapped in their rooms! They can’t move. You must help them!”

I said to myself: Yes, we must first of all rescue those seriously ill tubercular patients who’ve been buried under the ruins.

I looked southwards again, and the sight of Nagasaki city in a sea of flames as far as the eye could reach made me think that such destruction could only have been caused by thousands of bombers, carpet-bombing. But not a plane was to be seen or heard, although even the leaves of potatoes and carrots at my feet were scorched and smouldering. The electricity cables must have exploded underground, I thought.

And then at last I identified the destroyer— “That’s it!” I cried. “It was the new bomb — the one used on Hiroshima!”

This account first appeared in Tatsuichiro Akizuki: Nagasaki 1945: The First Full-length Eyewitness Account of the Atomic Bomb Attack on Nagasaki.

Nagasaki, Japan, before and after the atomic bombing of August 9, 1945.

Nagasaki, Japan, before and after the atomic bombing of August 9, 1945.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Evans September 23, 2016 at 7:35 pm

These are all interesting debating points and have, as everyone knows, been gone over countless times in the last seventy years. World war two, the most violent and destructive in human history, was followed by a so-called cold war between the communist east and capitalist west. No battlefields, no invasions and conquests and above all no use of the enormous stockpile of nuclear armaments. The decision makers shrank just far enough from that brink to ensure the continuation of the human race. Nevertheless, the stocks and the consequent waste have mounted year on year. The superpowers provoked and supported proxy conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan and the middle east. Many nations now possess nuclear WMDs and doubtless others aspire to possession. Yes, the US and the Japanese were spared enormous losses. Later, mutual assured destruction by the Bomb held the world in check. However, the questions now are much wider and deeper. Threats to tolerable human survival beyond, let’s say, the next three or four generations centre on man-made environmental changes, depletion of scarce natural resources, and the rise of untreatable epidemics. Vast areas of the planet may become uninhabitable prompting unprecedented population shifts. The continuation of territorial and ideological conflicts in the light of such challenges poses the question again and again, “What has the human race learned from the devastation of the twentieth century wars?” The emerging global economy and communication networks demand totally new global awareness and a global responsibility. I believe this can only come from the peoples of the world in countless small initiatives. It will come from small-scale action and local initiatives. Those at the top – “them”- are quite unable to lead the way with restricted national visions. They are as blinkered as the Japanese generals in 1945, wilfully denying the obvious catastrophe.

Minor Heretic August 16, 2015 at 5:09 pm

The little known fact of the matter is that the U.S. high command, through code breaking and human intelligence, knew that the Japanese were looking for a negotiated surrender as early as December of 1944. In the first half of 1945 the Japanese made back-channel approaches to the U.S. government through a representative in Switzerland, through the Vatican, and through Norwegian diplomats. U.S. Naval Intelligence was fully aware that the emperor himself wanted to negotiate a surrender.

The admirals and generals who mattered knew that there was no need for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. There are a number of theories about why we dropped the bomb anyway, but the military fearing casualties was not one of them.

John Martin Bradley August 13, 2015 at 11:58 pm

What do people think of the idea of it also as a lesson to to the Soviet Union? Churchill was already banging on about the next big threat to world peace etc. etc.

Andrew Shakespeare August 12, 2015 at 7:34 pm

I disagree, Sam. If you read back in the blog, to the entries concerning Okinawa, it’s plain the Americans had no reason to imagine that the invasion of Japan would not be equally long and bloody. Given that the duty of President Wilson was to protect American lives, not Japanese, I can’t imagine how he could realistically made any other decision.

The fault has to fall on the Japanese. They started the war. Attacking Pearl Harbor was an act of incomprehensible folly and stupidity (even had they achieved their objectives, American industrial power would simply have replaced the losses within a year). By this stage in 1945, It was plain to everybody, including the Japanese high command, that they’d lost. Had they simply surrendered, there would have been no bomb. But for reasons that had nothing whatever for the welfare of their citizens, they opted to continue with an impossible fight. Thus, to save hundreds of thousands of American lives, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

And even then, the Japanese high command still wouldn’t surrender! So another one got dropped. What else were the Americans supposed to do? Tell huge numbers of people that their loved ones had died gloriously invading Japan, as opposed to applying the same destructive pressure on the Japanese high command with almost no loss of American life at all?

Realistically, given the outcomes of Okinawa, which made clear the Japanese high command’s strategy for resisting; namely, to make American citizens pay bloodily for their victory, the eventual Japanese surrender almost certainly saved millions of Japanese lives, whereas “only” a few hundred thousand died in the atomic bombings.

To suggest that the Americans should have had a greater regard for the welfare of the Japanese citizenry than the Japanese government did is absurd. Thanks to the atomic bombs, far fewer Japanese died, and the survivors’ suffering was ended far sooner, than it would have done had the Japanese government had its way.

John G. August 12, 2015 at 6:47 pm

Higher casualties by invading the mainland of Japan was a known fact.
How many is open to specualtion. Based on the Battle of Okinawa, military planners dreaded the invasion. The initial estimates were up to 220K US casualties for Operation Olympic (first phase of taking the Japanese Main islands). Total Allied estimates to take japan were 1.7 to 4 million and Japanese 5- 10 million casualties. Japanese civilians were being taught it was their duty to fight.
“They” understood that the bomb was a terrible weapon, never before seen.
“They” also knew it would have consequences not yet understood.

John G. August 12, 2015 at 6:37 pm

Gerald is correct.
One only needs to look at the Battle of Okinawa, which had a heavy mix of civilian casualties and almost complete destruction of Japanese military forces on the island. Japanese civilians of all ages were being taught that it was their duty to resist American forces with any means available. Operation Olympic (initial invasion) estimates were between 130,000 and 220,000 U.S. casualties, of which U.S. dead would be in the range from 25,000 to 46,000 (wikipedia/other sources).
I would also say that “they” understood it would be a terrible weapon, but maybe not to the extent it was or the “third order” magnitude of the after-effects .
What seems to be missed (or at least not mentioned) by Sam is that the enemy was also working on such a weapon. The US got to it first.

Sam Brasel August 11, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Gerald, your second assertion is not known to be a fact. But even if it is a fact, for the U.S. to use this type of weapon, against which the U.S. would itself have no feasible defense, was the height of folly. They built it but they failed to understand it.

Gerald Barbo August 9, 2015 at 11:03 pm

The Japanese brought the atomic bombs on themselves. Far more Japanese and Americans would have died if the war had continued without the atomic bombings.

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