One scene shared by all of the 20th century's bloodiest conflicts might have been lifted straight from The Road Warrior, or a Beckett play: spectral landscape; buildings obliterated; blasted trees; lifeless wasteland. The photographs in this gallery, for instance—pictures that starkly reference every bleak, war-battered panorama from Gettysburg to Verdun to Stalingrad to Chosin Reservoir to Pork Chop Hill—were made in September, 1945, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
But far from chronicling the aftermath of a sustained, slogging campaign, these pictures—none of which were published in LIFE magazine—depict the devastation produced in a few unspeakably violent seconds. Here, LIFE.com presents pictures from both cities taken in the weeks and months following the bombings—bombings that killed a combined 120,000 people outright, and tens of thousands more through injury and radiation sickness. Included, as well, are scans of typed memos from photographer Bernard Hoffman—quietly revelatory notes like the one he wrote on September 3, 1945, to LIFE's long-time picture editor, Wilson Hicks:
We saw Hiroshima today—or what little is left of it. We were so shocked with what we saw that most of us felt like weeping; not out of sympathy for the Japs but because we were revolted by this new and terrible form of destruction. Compared to Hiroshima, Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne are practically untouched . . . The sickly sweet smell of death is everywhere.
The reasons most of these and many more pictures by LIFE photographers on the ground in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never published have largely been lost or simply forgotten over the intervening seven decades. Perhaps a family album (see slide #4) too-readily humanized an enemy that had been so effectively demonized and dehumanized for four long, brutal years. (Of that image, photographer Bernard Hoffman wrote to LIFE's long-time photo editor, Wilson Hicks, on September 9, 1945: "Assume this had been a private dwelling. The album was water soaked and some of the pix stuck together. . . . However, since this album came through the blast intact, and remains the only evidence of what once had been a home and family, I'm sending the pictures on for what they're worth to you.")
Or maybe a specific picture didn't make it into LIFE because it too-closely resembled another image that had run in an issue of the magazine a week, or a month, before.
The fact of the matter is, as with almost all of the photographs from the vast LIFE archives that never made it into the pages of the magazine, we'll likely never know why the remarkable pictures here went unpublished for so long.
Finally, below are excerpts from various issues of LIFE published after the war that convey the powerful, discordant reactions—relief, horror, pride, fear—that the bombings, and the long-sought victory over Japan, unleashed. Today, when America and Japan are, for the most part, staunch allies, trading partners and avid fans of one another's goods, foods and popular culture, the words and sentiments below are a vivid reminder that the Second World War is history—bloody, complicated, indelible history.
"In the following waves [after the initial blast] people's bodies were terribly squeezed, then their internal organs ruptured. Then the blast blew the broken bodies at 500 to 1,000 miles per hour through the flaming, rubble-filled air. Practically everybody within a radius of 6,500 feet was killed or seriously injured and all buildings crushed or disemboweled." — From the article "Atom Bomb Effects," LIFE magazine, 3/11/1946
"Japan's premier, Prince Higashi-Kuni . . . on September 5 paid despairing tribute to the atomic bomb: 'This terrific weapon was likely to result in the obliteration of the Japanese people.' The atomic bomb, he indicated, was the immediate inducement to surrender. . . ." — From "What Ended the War," LIFE magazine, 9/17/1945
"A crewman met us at the door, a big smile on his face. 'The strike report is in,' he said. 'They dropped it on Nagasaki.' The colonel was surprised. 'That was the third target,' he said. Inside the hut everybody was cheerful. The men felt Sweeney [Major Charles W. Sweeney, who commanded the B-29 bomber, Bockscar] would reach Okinawa from Nagasaki, or at least ditch in the sea near there and get picked up by a Navy rescue plane. We heard later that Sweeney reached Okinawa with 'enough gas to fill a cigarette lighter.'" — From "The Week the War Ended," LIFE magazine, 7/17/1950, by reporter Robert Schwartz
"Japanese doctors said that those who had been killed by the blast itself died instantly. But presently, according to these doctors, those who had suffered only small burns found their appetite failing, their hair falling out, their gums bleeding. They developed temperatures of 104, vomited blood, and died. It was discovered that they had lost 86 percent of their white blood corpuscles. Last week the Japanese announced that the count of Hiroshima's dead had risen to 125,000." — From the article "What Ended the War," LIFE magazine, 9/17/1945
"I never heard an enlisted man in the 509th use the words 'atom bomb' or 'atomic bomb' or 'A-bomb.' Everyone in the squadron called it 'The Gimmick.' During the months of their secret work they had to have a name for the vague something that they were supposed to be working on, and when somebody referred to it as 'The Gimmick' that name stuck." — From the article, "The Week the War Ended," LIFE magazine, 7/17/1950
"When the [Nagasaki] bomb went off, a flier on another mission 250 miles away saw a huge ball of fiery yellow erupt. Others, nearer at hand, saw a big mushroom of dust and smoke billow darkly up to 20,000 feet, and then the same detached floating head as at Hiroshima. Twelve hours later Nagasaki was a mass of flame, palled by acrid smoke, its pyre still visible to pilots 200 miles away. The bombers reported that black smoke had shot up like a tremendous, ugly waterspout. With grim satisfaction, [physicists] declared that the 'improved' second atomic bomb had already made the first one obsolete." — From the article, "War's Ending," LIFE magazine, 8/20/1945
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.
A Photo-Essay on the Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Hiroshima, Japanese city, situated some 8M km. (500 mi.) from Tokyo, on which the first operational atomic bomb was dropped at 0815 on 6 August 1945. Nicknamed 'Little Boya reference to Rooseveltthe bomb was 3 m. (9 ft. 9 in.) long, used uranium 235, had the power of 12.5 kilotons of TNT, and weighed 3,600 kg. (nearly 8,000 lb.).
Much discussion by a Target committee had preceded the decision to make Hiroshima the first target. To be able to assess the damage it caused, and to impress the Japanese government with the destruction it was expected to wreak, it was necessary to choose a city that had not yet been touched by the USAAFs strategic air offensives. Kyoto was also considered but its unrivalled beauty ruled it out.
The bomb was delivered by a US B29 bomber, nicknamed Enola Gay, from the Pacific island of Tinian. Dropped by parachute it exploded about 580 m. (1,885 ft.) above the ground, and at the point of detonation the temperature probably reached several million degrees centigrade. Almost immediately a fireball was created from which were emitted radiation and heat rays, and severe shock waves were created by the blast. A one-ton (900 kg.) conventional bomb would have destroyed all wooden structures within a radius of 40 m. (130 ft.). Little Boy destroyed them all within a radius of 2 km. (1.2 mi.) of the hypocentre (the point above which it exploded). The terrain was flat and congested with administrative and commercial buildings, and the radius of destruction for the many reinforced concrete structures was about 500 m. (1,625 ft.), though only the top stories of earthquake-resistant buildings were damage or destroyed. Altogether an area of 13 sq. Ikm. (5 sq. mi.) was reduced to ashes and of the 76,000 buildings in the city 62.9% were destroyed and only 8% escaped damage.
Within 1.2 km. (.74 mi.) of the hypocentre there was probably a 50% death rate of the 350,000 people estimated to have been in Hiroshima at the time. Hiroshima City Survey Section estimated a figure of 118,661 civilian deaths up to 10 August 1946 (see Table). Add to this a probable figure of 20,000 deaths of military personnel and the current figurefor people are still dying as a result of the radiation receivedis in the region of 140,000. Among those who survived, the long-term effects of radiation sickness, genetic and chromosome injury, and mental trauma have been catastrophic, even unborn children having been stunted in growth and sometimes mentally retarded.
Committee on Damage by Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings (London, 1981).
Nagasaki, Japanese city on which the second operational atomic bomb was dropped. Nicknamed 'Fat Man' (a reference to Churchill), the bomb, which used plutonium 239, was dropped by parachute at 1102 on 9 August by an American B29 bomber from the Pacific island of Tinian. It measured just under 3.5 m. (11 ft. 4 in.) in length, had the power of 22 kilotons of TNT, and weighed 4,050 kg. (nearly 9,000 lb.). The aircraft's first target was the city of Kokura, now part of Kitakyushu, but as it was covered by heavy cloud the aircraft was diverted to its second target, Nagasaki.
Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki lies in a series of narrow valleys bordered by mountains in the east and west. The bomb exploded about 500 m. (1,625 ft.) above the ground and directly beneath it (the hypocentre) was a suburb of schools, factories, and private houses. The radius of destruction for reinforced concrete buildings was 750 m. (2,437 ft.), greater than at Hiroshima where the blast caused by the bomb was more vertical. But because of the topography, and despite the Nagasaki bomb being more powerful, only about 6.7 sq. km. (2.6 sq. mi.) of Nagasaki was reduced to ashes compared with 13 sq. km. (5 sq. mi.) of Hiroshima. Of the 51,000 buildings in the city 22.7% were completely destroyed or burt, with 36.1 % escaping any damage.
Among the 270,000 people present when the bomb was dropped, about 2,500 were labour conscripts from Korea and 350 were prisoners-of-war. About 73,884 were killed and 74,909 injured, with the affected survivors suffering the same long-term catastrophic results of radiation and mental trauma as at Hiroshima.
Committee on Damage by Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings (London, 1981).
Nagasaki Journey: The Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata
On August 10, 1945, the day after the bombing of Nagasaki, Yosuke Yamahata began to photograph the devastation. His companions on the journey were a painter, Eiji Yamada, and a writer, Jun Higashi.
Follow these links for more information on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Return to Philip Levine
About World War II