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BEHIND THE IMAGE: Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945

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This poignant image is evidence of the miles of utter devastation caused when the world’s second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, three days after the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. The atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the final act of the Second World War, and resulted in an Allied victory, a Japanese surrender, and hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed.

This photograph was taken on 24 September 1945, six weeks after the attack. We see here the remnants of a temple that was demolished in the blast. On top of a pile of burnt rubble and splintered wood sit two abandoned statues of the Buddha. The statues lean sadly forward. Behind them, the razed city stretches out towards distant mountains, a desolate waste – land of blast-site ruins and hollowed-out shells of half-standing buildings.

The Manhattan Project created the first atomic bombs in the United States while the Second World War raged elsewhere. The bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was a plutonium implosion-type fission bomb, code-named ‘Fat Man’. Fat Man was the second bomb of this type to be made, the first being ‘The Gadget’, which was detonated at the ‘Trinity’ nuclear test-site in New Mexico on 16 July 1945.

The Nagasaki bomb exploded after its nuclear fuel of plutonium was brought to critical mass, starting a chain reaction. This reaction is caused by neutrons hitting the plutonium nucleus, which splits and releases a huge amount of energy, as well as further neutrons, which split more nuclei, and so on.

The core of plutonium was surrounded by high-explosive, designed to explode inwards, crushing the plutonium core into a super-critical state. The bomb, which had an explosive yield force of about 20,000 tonnes of TNT, killed thousands of people outright, but left many more to die weeks and months later from burn and blast injuries, and from radiation illnesses.

During the war, annihilationist rhetoric towards the Japanese became rife, as Allied propaganda encouraged people to see them as nothing but an enemy. After the nuclear bombings, images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were censored, so as not to show the victims of the attacks. It wasn’t until weeks later, when journalists visited the sites and sent pictures back to Britain and America, that the full scale of the atrocity that won the war began to be seen.

This image shows the vast mushroom cloud exploding upwards from Nagasaki, following the release of the atomic bomb. About 30% of Nagasaki, including almost all of the city’s industrial district, was destroyed by the blast. Nearly 74,000 were killed, and a similar number injured. Residents of Nagasaki and Hiroshima continue to suffer the physical and mental consequences of radiation to this day.

The day after the bombing, one New York Times correspondent wrote, ‘Yesterday man unleashed the atom to destroy man, and another chapter in human history opened, a chapter in which the weird, the strange, the horrible becomes the trite and obvious.’


This is an article from the January 2015 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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