Atomic bombing 75 years ago Attack on Nagasaki: When the Fat Man Tens of thousands of lives taken
The 9. August 1945 seems to be as humid in Nagasaki as the days before. The sky is blue, the cicadas shrill. But in the corridors of Dai-Ichi Hospital in the north of the city, it is pleasantly cool. Tatsuichiro Akizuki, a 29-year-old doctor, examines around 8.30 o’clock his first patient – although air-raid warning sounds.
He has gotten used to it: In the past few months, U.S. bombers have already attacked Nagasaki five times; but the city is still barely destroyed.
While the doctor treats his patients, 59-year-old Matsu Moriuchi sits a few hundred meters away in the air-raid shelter of Yamasato Elementary School. With her are her niece’s three children: eight-year-old Isamu, five-year-old Fujio, and two-year-old Kimiyo. Their pregnant mother has stayed at home to guard the house, while their father makes his rounds as an air-raid warden. At ten o’clock you hear the all clear. Only one American plane flew over Nagasaki.
Relieved, the people leave the cellar
GEO EPOCHE No. 44 The Second World War – Part 2
At the same time, the imperial seal-keeper in Tokyo, 1000 kilometers away, informs Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki that Emperor Hirohito wishes to make peace with the Allies.
Suzuki convenes the Supreme War Council. Officially, it is the emperor who decides between war and peace. But in fact it is the "Big Six" who decide, a camarilla of officers and politicians, control the country’s destiny. Hirohito, largely shielded from the public eye, has so far merely given legitimacy to all that others have determined in his name.
Against 10.30 o’clock the six men gather in the basement of the imperial palace: the prime minister, the foreign, naval and war ministers, the chiefs of staff of the army and the fleet.
With the words "It has become almost impossible to continue the war", the Prime Minister opens the meeting. Silence. The men have to think about something completely foreign to them: the occupation of their country.
Never before in the almost 1500-year history of the Japanese Empire has this happened.
The atomic bomb explodes 500 meters above Nagasaki
War Minister Korechika Anami wants to fight on, but the others agree that Japan will have to surrender. But unconditionally, as the Allies demand? Or can they extract concessions?
The men in the palace are still debating when Matsu Moriuchi hears another plane in Nagasaki. She and the children run back to the shelter, she turns around once more – and sees a glistening blue flash. In its light at the entrance shines a man "a beautiful statue" equal, as she later recalls. At the same moment, a shock wave knocks her to the ground and she loses consciousness.
At the hospital, Doctor Akizuki takes cover behind his patient’s bed just in time. It is 11.02 o’clock. At a height of 500 meters above Nagasaki, the American atomic bomb "Fat Man" exploded exploded. About 240,000 people live in the port city. Nagasaki is located in the southwest of the island of Kyushu on a bay.
The city stretches along two rivers, after which the two large districts are named: the administrative and commercial center of Nakashima in the east and Urakami in the north. Factories are concentrated there, including munitions and weapons plants.
Near the armories are Dai-Ichi Hospital, the medical college, the university hospital, and several schools. The two river valleys are separated by a 200 meter high ridge of hills. It will decide the fate of tens of thousands.
A total of 900,000 troops are stationed around the city – Tokyo leaders suspect the U.S. could launch an invasion of Japan from the south of the island.
Since April, the imperial generals have been preparing ketsu-go, the "decisive operation" in defense of Japan. For large parts of the empire once conquered by the forces of the Tenno have long since been occupied or threatened by the Allies; the Americans have already taken two smaller, even panic-stricken islands.
The Imperial Navy suffers its first serious defeat in mid-1942 off the Midway Islands, 2,000 kilometers northwest of Hawaii. The Japanese, surprised by the Allies, lose four aircraft carriers and most of their bomber crews, forfeiting their naval and air superiority.
A few weeks later, the U.S. forces finally go on the offensive: They land on the Solomon Islands of Guadalcanal and then conquer island after island – the Marianas in August 1944. There, they set up a base for long-range bombers that attack defense plants as well as residential areas 2,000 kilometers away in Japan.
The beleaguered imperial forces fight ever more doggedly: as the U.S. prepares to land in the Japanese-occupied Philippines in October, suicide pilots swoop down on ships for the first time. But the Americans inflict far greater losses on their opponents, sinking nearly 100 combat and supply ships, including four aircraft carriers. At the latest now Japan has no more chance.
In March 1945, the US Air Force bombs Tokyo, 80,000 people die in a firestorm. Around the same time, U.S. Marines capture the islands of Iwojima and Okinawa. Thus the US forces have a strategically located base for the occupation of Japan.
Ketsu-Go is the last, desperate action of generals and politicians who know the war is lost. However, they hope to defeat the U.S. in the "decisive operation." so great a loss that the U.S. president gives the emperor an "honorable" Offering peace.
That’s why the military is recruiting civilians en masse: Men between the ages of 15 and 60 and women between 17 and 45, who are grouped together in volunteer units. They receive the same order as the soldiers: Kill as many Americans as possible, break their fighting morale. But there are no weapons or ammunition. To one student, her instructor gives an awl for hand-to-hand combat: "It’s enough to kill an American. Targets on the belly." Students from the 6. Classes and their teachers have to work in the armament factories. But they cannot remedy the deficiency. The politicians and officers know that. Nevertheless, at the end of July, they ignore the Allies’ threat to completely devastate Japan if the Imperial Army did not capitulate.
On 6. August 1945, however, a single bomb changes everything. In Hiroshima, tens of thousands of people die in an explosion that would otherwise have taken the Americans 2500 planes of ordinary explosives to destroy. US President Harry S.Truman had previously been persuaded by his military advisors: An invasion of Japan would probably kill or injure a million American soldiers; the new type of bomb, on the other hand, would cause a few tens of thousands of casualties. The atomic bomb as a weapon to spare human lives – so Truman argues. What is certain, however, is this: The U.S. military wants to test the bomb on undestroyed territory. That is why they chose Hiroshima.
On 9. August, the Big Six discuss in the imperial palace
It is not until the day after the bombing that some English-speaking Japanese learn what has happened through a radio address by Truman. From the loudspeakers of their shortwave radios they also hear his threat: if Japan’s leadership does not capitulate immediately, the country must expect "a rain of destruction from the air such as has never been seen on this earth.
But politicians and commanders in Tokyo hesitate: As long as it is uncertain whether the US Air Force has really dropped an atomic bomb, the majority does not want to take any action.
On the night of 9. August Soviet troops attack the Japanese satellite state of Manchukuo on the territory of Manchuria – although Tokyo and Moscow have concluded a neutrality agreement. Thus Japan’s hopeless situation has become even more acute.
Nevertheless, the Big Six discuss in the imperial palace on the morning of 9. August four conditions they want to set: The imperial rule must be preserved, the Japanese will judge war criminals themselves and disarm themselves, an Allied occupation must be avoided.
But only the first condition is supported by almost all members of the war council. Some of the politicians want to extract further concessions from the Allies – and War Minister Anami still rejects surrender in principle: the situation in Manchuria is still unclear, and no one can say whether the USA will drop further nuclear warheads.
There is enough at 11.30 o’clock a servant brings in a note: The Americans have detonated a second bomb. Fat Man, a good three meters long, weighing four tons, explodes over the tennis court of an industrialist in the Urakami Valley, about 500 meters from Yamasato Elementary School. The bomber crew missed the drop point – the city’s steel and armaments factories – by more than a kilometer.
Fat Man is a plutonium bomb with even greater explosive power than the Hiroshima bomb. Within 0.1 milliseconds it turns into a fireball, 15 meters wide and 300,000 degrees Celsius hot.
A blast wave races from zero in all directions at an initial speed of 1500 kilometers per hour. Within a radius of 800 meters almost every building collapses, two kilometers away wooden houses are blown down, stone houses are severely damaged. Trees buckle, their trunks pointing away from the blast site like the spokes of a wheel.
Still 15 kilometers away, the window panes shatter. Almost simultaneously, the heat generated by the detonation ignites a massive fire.
Only the ridge between the two river valleys prevents the whole of Nagasaki from being destroyed. Houses also burn in the business district of Nakashima, but it is in the Urakami Valley alone that Fat Man unleashes its full power.
On the ground under the bomb the air becomes more than 3000 degrees hot. Whoever is standing here evaporates instantly. Clothes catch fire two kilometers away, people still suffer burns four kilometers away.
True Crime Crimes of the Past – the GEO EPOCHE Podcast
16-year-old mailman Sumiteru Taniguchi is whirled through the air on his bicycle. When he regains consciousness, the skin of his left arm has come off down to his fingertips.
His back is burned to a pulp.
Roof tiles glow red, steel beams melt, here and there a vent still stands upright, a telegraph pole, a temple gate. Of some factory buildings only bent steel skeletons remain.
The cathedral of Urakami collapses, 220 faithful and their priests die during confession. In a school 500 meters west of the drop point, the bomb kills 1300 children and teachers – as many in Yamasato Elementary School.
1000 doctors, students, nurses and patients die in the medical school and university hospital.
A few minutes after the explosion, 30,000 people are dead: vaporized, beaten to death, burned to death. But the dying continues. The heat radiation from the bomb starts fires even three kilometers from the center of the explosion. Soon the sky is darkened by smoke, and the sun breaks through the clouds with a pale reddish glow. The Dai Ichi Hospital, one and a half kilometers from the drop site, also catches fire.
The blast wave has shattered the windows, but the hospital, a brick building, is still standing, and no one seems to be seriously injured. Doctor Akizuki and his colleagues take the patients outside. They can save all of them, but there is no time left to clear out the medical storehouse.
The first wounded stagger through the courtyard gate, harbingers of hundreds of victims of the bomb who are now dragging themselves up the hill. Workers, merchants, girls, men, all half-naked or completely unclothed, with scorched hair and burnt skin hanging in shreds from their bodies.
Some still wear a leather belt around their stomachs and the strings of their pants around their ankles; the rest of their clothing is burned. They move slowly, as if exhausted to death.
And all moan: "I am injured. I am injured. Water!" Someone still manages to ask the young doctor "Is this a hospital??", then collapses. Other injured people remain lying on the road in front of the clinic, in the sweet potato fields on the hill, on the bank of a stream.
All day long, the wounded drag themselves into the courtyard of the small, burned-out hospital. Doctor Akizuki has almost no bandages left, nothing to treat severe burns.
With a brush for calligraphy, he brushes zinc oxide and iodine on charred backs, arms, legs.
People who seemed to be saved fall ill from radioactive rays
A medical student carries an infant in his arms. He picked it up near a ruined house. From under the rubble, the mother had begged him to take care of her son.
The student tells of his path through Urakami, a path through hell: in the shallow waters of a river near the destroyed cathedral, naked corpses lay one on top of the other. The burning people had instinctively sought the water. A mother and her child holding each other tightly in death. A woman who must have given birth dying, she is still connected to the baby by the umbilical cord.
Matsu Moriuchi is still sitting in the shelter in the afternoon. She injured her left shoulder in her fall. Her niece’s children are unharmed, and their pregnant mother has also made it out of the burning house to join her family. Only their father, the air-raid warden, is missing.
The playground is full of corpses.
Wounded have dragged themselves to the entrance of the shelter. They moan and ask for water.
Little Kimiyo also begs for a drink. Her mother gives her the breast, but the child turns her head away. Matsu Moriuchi lets the beads of her rosary slip through her fingers and prays – for the living and the dead.
Suddenly their niece Hatsue screams: "What about Kimiyo??" The two-year-old twitches violently. Then she dies.
In the days that follow, the people of Nagasaki hear planes passing overhead again and again. At every engine sound, they flee in panic, ducking into ruins, into caves, throwing themselves on the ground.
Matsu Moriuchi ventures back into her devastated neighborhood. Sees the survivors searching for the black remains of their sisters, fathers, children amid the white ashes of their homes. Hears the story of an acquaintance who finds his wife halay to the neighbor’s house, burned beyond recognition, the wedding ring melted. But his neighbor also believes this is his wife, and both argue bitterly over the body.
And more and more of those people, who seemed to be saved, get sick by the invisible force of the atomic bomb. It is as deadly as the fireball and blast wave: radioactive rays destroy the body’s cells.
At Dai-Ichi Hospital, many patients develop symptoms that the young doctor can’t classify. At first they feel sick. Later, they get diarrhea, their gums start bleeding, purple spots spread under their skin, and the inside of their mouths also change color.
Doctor Akizuki cannot help them.
Matsu Moriuchi’s relatives, the pregnant Hatsue and her eldest son Isamu, also become visibly weaker. They suffer from diarrhea.
The war council’s discussion at the imperial palace is seemingly little affected by the news from Nagasaki.
Two of the participants will not even mention in their memoirs that they were informed about the explosion of the second atomic bomb during the meeting.
Only War Minister Anami relents: He too must now fear that the U.S. will destroy more cities with its new weapon. That’s why Anami joins the faction that wants to set four peace conditions for the Allies. But the council cannot agree on this.
At night, the politicians visit Emperor Hirohito in his bunker deep under the palace. Instead of presenting a unanimous decision to the Tenno – as required for decisions of the War Council – Prime Minister Suzuki informs him about the dispute of the Big Six. "Your Majesty’s wish", Suzuki finishes his lecture "shall decide the matter." A single surrender condition suffices for Hirohito: Japan must remain an empire. Anami is outraged. But he does not contradict Tenno. Soon after, a radio operator transmits the peace offer to the Allies.
On 2. September 1945 the Second World War is finally over
On 12. August, the U.S. Secretary of State’s reply arrives in Tokyo: After arms rest, Japan will be ruled by an Allied commander-in-chief, later the people can vote on whether the Tenno should be head of state again. In this way, the victorious powers build a bridge for the Japanese leadership – because the population stands unconditionally by the imperial state.
But the warmongers in the government use the message as an opportunity to question the Kaiser’s decision. A day later, the Supreme War Council votes again: three men are in favor of unconditional surrender, three against it.
Meanwhile, some officers, especially younger ones, prepare a coup d’etat.
They want to eliminate the peace-minded ministers, proclaim War Minister Anami as dictator and continue the fight against the Allies.
On the morning of the 14th. August the emperor holds another conference. He repeats his desire to end the war immediately. More:
He wants to speak on the radio to his people, who have never heard the voice of the Tenno. Now Anami also gives up his resistance – and the coup plotters can no longer count on his support. (When the officers nevertheless dare to carry out the coup the following night, they fail within a few hours.)
While in the afternoon of this 14. August the cabinet in Tokyo is preparing the emperor’s address, Hatsue suddenly begins to moan in the ruins of Urakami: The baby is coming.
But during the night, the child in Hatsue’s womb stops moving. A few hours later it is stillborn.
In the morning, Hatsue and her eight-year-old son also die. It is the 15th. August. Six days ago Fat Man exploded over Nagasaki. For the past three days, more and more people die who seem to have survived the air raid only slightly injured or completely unharmed.
For decades to come, thousands of people who died on the morning of 9. August were exposed to radioactivity, succumb to radiation sickness.
The morning after the death of her niece and her niece’s children, Matsu Moriuchi searches for charred pieces of wood in the ruins of the city and builds a funeral pyre with them, on which she burns the three bodies. As the fire dies down, she hears a noise coming from the elementary school. It sounds like many people sobbing. Your neighbor goes over to see what has happened. He comes back crying: Japan has surrendered. Unconditional.
Since the country began war with the U.S. in December 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, 3.1 million Japanese have died, including 800,000 civilians.
On 2. September 1945, representatives of the Japanese government sign the surrender document aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Six years after the German attack on Poland, the Second World War is finally over.
After giving the order to use the atomic bomb in July 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman wrote in his diary: "I told the Secretary of War to use it to hit military targets and soldiers and sailors, not women and children." In Nagasaki, more than 70,000 people die in the first five months after the blast, but only about 330 are soldiers or military personnel.
And the effect of the bomb continues. Many babies are born with heads too small and mentally disabled. Children and infants develop more slowly and die more often than their peers.
A few years after the end of the war, an unusually large number of people become ill with leukemia, and later with other types of cancer as well. Those who were able to heal their burns and injuries bear disfiguring scar sores on their bodies, often on their faces, for the rest of their lives.
Matsu Moriuchi and her great-nephew Fujio survive – as the only ones of the family (the father of the five-year-old was probably already among the first victims of the atomic bomb). They settle in the south of the city at the mouth of the Urakami River, where Matsu earns her living as a clam digger, even though she has been working as a clam digger since that 9th day. August can no longer move her left arm without pain.
A few kilometers to the north, Doctor Akizuki will soon be working in his hospital again. He feels no bitterness toward the U.S., the doctor will later explain to a British publicist; Tokyo’s leaders are responsible for the destruction of his hometown. Because they knew that Japan would lose the war.