Tiny events

It begins with a spark. Four cordite bags lit by an electric charge fire an explosion inside the falling bomb, pushing the rings of purified uranium down a gun barrel and into a second uranium mass. It is from within this radioactive bundle that the neutrons escape. Most disappear, their neutral charge allowing them to career out, through Little Boy’s steel casing, into the ether, a harmless effect.

But one particle will strike into the nucleus of a uranium atom and then the reaction will begin. The neutron will make the atom’s centre wobble, the energy binding it tight will shake loose. Then it will splinter, throwing out fragments into the bellies of other atoms, where the process will repeat. It is mathematics, with the continual doubling of these tiny events through 80 iterations, which describes most simply the shift from this atomic smallness to the vast human horror to come a millionth of a second later.

Hiroshima: The Fallout

The eyewitness accounts of Hiroshima survivors begin with descriptions of the light, a magnesium burn blistering the sky, a sheet of sun, a soundless flash.

Little Boy explodes at 8.15am on 6 August 1945, some 580m above Shima Hospital, showering the city with radiation; gamma rays, X-rays, neutron rays. The light burst lasts less than half a second but with it comes heat to scorch and kill.

A fireball balloons upwards, rapidly expanding as the bomb’s shock waves lay waste to what lies below. It takes 10 seconds.

Eighty thousand people die instantly as this new age dawns.

The only film footage of the explosion was taken from the Enola Gay, the US plane that dropped the bomb.
The only film footage of the explosion was taken from the Enola Gay, the US plane that dropped the bomb.

Junko Morimoto was a 13-year old schoolgirl, at home with her older sister.


I could hear the sound of a plane high up in the sky. I stood up without thinking and said: ‘It’s a B-29.’ In the next moment came something like a light, a bright light surrounding everything. My cheek became slightly hot and then BLAM, BLAM, BLAM.

And after everything was shining there was a little pause and then what I would describe as a terrible roar, more a vibration than a sound and with that the house started to crumble on us.

I thought to myself, ‘This is the end. I am going to die. I am going to die.’ And while having these thoughts, I passed out.


Hiroshima: The Fallout

Illustrations by Junko Morimoto


As the mushroom cloud billowed out above the city some 60,000 buildings were destroyed. They included 16 city hospitals and 32 first-aid clinics. Out of Hiroshima’s 150 doctors, 65 were dead.

Among those who lived was Dr Michihiko Hachiya. He had returned home from his shift as an air warden at the Hiroshima Communications Hospital when the bomb struck.

With blood running from his mouth and a leg mangled, he found his wife alive among the wreckage and they decide to head back to the hospital.

In his diary he describes walking along the street, breathless and thirsty. He’s completely naked, the explosion stripping him of his clothes.

Dr Michihiko Hachiya.
Dr Michihiko Hachiya.


It was all a nightmare — my wounds, the darkness, the road ahead.

My movements were ever so slow; only my mind was running at top speed.

Some [people] looked as if they had been frozen by death while in the full action of flight; others lay sprawled as though some giant had flung them to their death from a great height.

I saw nothing that wasn’t burnt to a crisp. Streetcars were standing and inside were dozens of bodies, blackened beyond recognition. I saw fire reservoirs filled to the brim with dead bodies who looked as they had been boiled alive. In one reservoir I saw one man, horribly burned, crouching beside another man who was dead.

I paused to rest. Gradually things around me came into focus. There were the shadowy forms of people, some of whom looked like walking ghosts.

Others moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling. These people puzzled me until I suddenly realized that they had been burned and they were holding their arms out to prevent the painful friction of raw surfaces rubbing together.


Hiroshima: The Fallout

At the Red Cross Hospital, only one doctor survived unscathed: Dr Terufumi Sasaki. The surgeon had been standing with a blood specimen in his hand about to conduct a Wassermann test in a first floor room when he saw the flash. He ducked before uttering the words “Sasaki, gambare” — “Sasaki, be brave” — and then the blast ripped through the hospital.

In his book Hiroshima, written a year after the bomb, the American journalist John Hersey describes Dr Sasaki making his way out of the hospital, through the rubble to confront the aftermath.

Dr Terufumi Sasaki.
Dr Terufumi Sasaki.


Before long patients lay and crouched on the floors of the wards and the laboratories and all the other rooms, and in the corridors and on the stairs and in the front hall …. Wounded people supported maimed people; disfigured families leaned together. Many people were vomiting. A tremendous number of school girls — some of whom had [been] taken from their classrooms to work outdoors, clearing fire lanes — crept into the hospital.

Tugged here and there in his stockinged feet, bewildered by the numbers, staggered by so much raw flesh, Dr Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skilful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding.


Truman tells the world

On the other side of the Pacific ocean, Harry Truman, the US president, was announcing to the world news of a weapon that drew its energy from the same physical forces as the sun.


Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare…

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the Universe …

The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.

The greatest marvel is not the size of the enterprise, its secrecy, nor its cost, but the achievement of scientific brains in putting together infinitely complex pieces of knowledge held by many men in different fields of science.


Images of the bomb will come to America later; pictures of the cloud.

There will also be pictures of the aftermath on the ground — proof of the material devastation, a city crushed flat.

But the images, curated by the government for public consumption, will be deliberately stripped of the human hurt. It is not until two months after the war’s end that America will see the Japanese themselves, frightened and hollowed-eyed in the pages of Life magazine.

Captions accompanying the pictures likened their burns to those suffered at Pearl Harbour.

A mother tends to her young son after the blast.
A mother tends to her young son after the blast.

Mystery illness

In Hiroshima itself, the small number of doctors alive and still able to work struggled without blood supplies and all but the most basic medications. There were burns of course, and broken bodies and the enormous psychological trauma.

Doctors like Dr Sasaki would attempt to sew up wounds — many of which were quickly becoming infected.

In the days that followed, doctors from other cities arrived in Hiroshima to offer help, including doctors and a group of nurses from nearby Yamaguchi, carrying with them bandages and antiseptics.

But soon they began to notice signs of some sort of contagion in the city: at least, contagion was suspected when people — apparently uninjured — began to die.

At first the vomiting and diarrhoea was thought to be dysentery and there were attempts amid the devastation to introduce some sort of quarantine to contain a possible outbreak.

Petechiae also appeared on limbs and pressure points. Large ecchymoses developed where needles had been injected. Wounds never healed, they just broke and bled. And there was sudden hair loss.

The petechiae in particular became an obsession, a mark of death to those affected.

Dr Hachiya wrote in his diary:


Everyone had begun to examine one another for these ominous spots until it seemed we were suffering from a spot phobia. I too became afraid. When I got back to my bed I examined every inch of my body and you can imagine the relief I felt when I found no petechiae. So far I was all right.



Junko and her sister had survived with minimal injuries. But a week after the bomb, living in the ruins of an army barracks, they were suffering from fever, struggling to breathe or drink.


Then somebody told us of a rumour that there was a doctor in the mountains. So we both went, walking through the rubble.

When we arrived at the mountains there was a doctor who used lived in our block and was very trusted. His name was Dr Goro Nagasaki.

The pine trees and the mountain were burnt, so he was sitting on a straw mat under a pine tree with no leaves. There was a long line of people waiting to be seen.

We went to go sit by the doctor. Then he told us: ‘Open your mouth wide.’

So he looks inside and he says: ‘Hmm, I think you guys inhaled some gas.’

Doctors at the time didn’t know about the atomic bomb.

Then my older sister asked: ‘Are we going to die?’

‘Yes I guess so,’ and he pointed upward to signify that we were going to heaven.

We weren’t shocked to hear that. We told ourselves. ‘I guess we are going to die.’

There was no medicine or anything that could help us.


Hiroshima: The Fallout

Later, news began spreading about the nature of the bomb blast — namely that it was atomic. Slowly, doctors in Hiroshima familiar with the science underpinning X-rays realised the symptoms were probably radiation sickness.

High doses of ionising radiation were bombarding survivors, destroying their bone marrow stem cells, the cell linings of their gastrointestinal tract and their hair root cells.

Treatments were rudimentary: liver extracts and vitamins. There were attempts at blood transfusions. When the allied doctors arrived following the Japanese formal declaration of surrender on 2 September, they gave injections of a newly discovered wonder drug called penicillin. It had some effect.

But in the immediate aftermath there was little that could be done. Large numbers of people died from secondary diseases, such as septic broncho-pneumonia or tuberculosis as a result of lowered immune resistance.

The city, described as a graveyard turned upside down, was gripped by fear.

The survivors believed they were inhaling poisons or lethal germs released by the bomb, its mysterious toxins bleeding into the soil where no life would grow for another 75 years. These were a few of the rumours flourishing after the black rain fell.

‘A good thermal burn’

It wasn’t until the end of August, four weeks after the bomb had been dropped, that the first information about this mystery sickness arrived in the US. The stories in the media were sourced from broadcasts by Radio Tokyo.

The leaders of the US administration seemed largely ignorant of the radiation effects the bomb was likely to inflict. The only studies on whole body radiation exposure prior to Hiroshima had been carried out on rabbits.

The administration went into denial, refusing to believe that its technological miracle — still the dominant narrative in the West’s history of the bomb— could be contaminated in this way. And so they dismissed the reports as Japanese propaganda.

General Leslie Groves, the man who led the Manhattan Project.
General Leslie Groves, the man who led the Manhattan Project.

What follows is a transcript of a phone conversation between General Leslie Groves, the man who led the Manhattan Project — the top-secret project set up to develop the bomb — and a medical officer called Charles Rae, a lieutenant colonel working at the hospital in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where the project was based.

It is August 25 and they have just been reading through a transcript of a recent Radio Tokyo broadcast about Hiroshima.

General Groves reads the words aloud: “Now it is peopled by ghost parade, the living doomed to die of radioactivity.”

He is not happy.

Lieutenant Colonel Rea: “Let me interrupt you a minute. I would say this. I think it’s good propaganda. The thing is these people got good and burned — good thermal burns.”

General Groves: “That is the feeling I have. Let me go on here and give you the rest of the picture. “So painful are these injuries that sufferers plead: ‘Please kill me,'” the broadcast said. ‘No one can ever completely recover.’

Lieutenant Colonel Rea: “I would say this … I think what these people have, they just got a good thermal burn, that’s what it is. A lot of these people, first of all they don’t notice it much. You may get burned and you may have a little redness, but in a couple of days you may have a big blister or a sloughing of the skin, and I think that is what these people have had.”

An estimated 25,000 people died from radiation poisoning in the first four months after the A-bomb was dropped.

Warning to the world

It was left to an Australian war correspondent to tell the wider world that the residents of Hiroshima were suffering from more than big blisters.

Melbournian Wilfred Burchett was a veteran reporter for the UK’s Daily Express. He had covered the US war against the Japanese from Burma through the island-hopping campaigns of the Pacific and had arrived in Japan on a ship with US Marines.

He quickly shrugged off the restrictions of US military control in Tokyo and beat the official press delegation to Hiroshima by jumping on a local train.

After a hazardous 21-hour journey surrounded by resentful Japanese soldiers, Burchett hopped off the train in Hiroshima. It was 3 September.

What he saw there shocked him and transformed his views forever.

He walked three miles to the centre of the blast and saw only piles of rubble — the only things standing were a few shells of concrete buildings. It soon became clear that tens of thousands of Hiroshima residents had been killed by the blast and heatwave of the bomb.

With the help of the Japanese Domei press agency, Burchett visited one of the few hospitals still functioning.

Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett.
Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett.


In these hospitals I found people who, when the bomb fell, suffered absolutely no injuries, but now are dying from the uncanny after-effect. For no apparent reason their health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies.

And the bleeding began from the ears, nose and mouth. At first the doctors told me they thought these were the symptoms of general debility. They gave their patients vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting away from the hole caused by the injection of the needle. And in every case the victim died.


Burchett spoke to Japanese doctors who said that 100 patients a day were dying of this mysterious illness, which they believed was caused by radioactivity released from the atomic bomb that had permeated into the ground, dust and water supply.

Burchett reported that visitors to the city — including the first teams of Japanese scientists — also experienced strange symptoms such as wounds that would not heal and susceptibility to infections.

In addition to radiation sickness, there were still many Hiroshima residents succumbing to their burns and trauma injuries from the bomb. The lack of antibiotics and basic medical facilities, combined with food shortages, meant many died in pain and hunger.

Nearly a month after the bomb had been dropped, Mr Burchett estimated that 80,000 people had died, and many of the 13,000 severely injured survivors were dying each day.

His story was headlined The Atomic Plague.


I write this as a warning to the world

In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly — people who were uninjured by the cataclysm — from an unknown something which I can only describe as atomic plague.

Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world. In this first testing ground of the atomic bomb I have seen the most terrible and frightening desolation in four years of war. It makes a blitzed Pacific island seem like an Eden.

The damage is far greater than photographs can show.


Hiroshima: The Fallout

He was fortunate in filing his story via a Japanese press agent rather than through official channels. An American reporter from the Chicago Daily News who reported similar observations from Nagasaki about what he called ‘Disease X’ had all his dispatches spiked when he filed them with General Douglas MacArthur’s censorship office in Tokyo.

Burchett returned to Tokyo on 7 September and incurred the wrath of General MacArthur’s new American occupation authorities, who were furious at seeing the consequences of their attack being publicised without their vetting.

The official line from the military was that the atom bomb had detonated at sufficient height over the city to avoid any dissemination of residual radiation at ground level.

Speaking to the press in Tokyo, a senior member of the deputy head of the Manhattan Project refuted Burchett’s comments about atomic plague, saying the correspondent had fallen prey to Japanese propaganda. Meanwhile, Burchett himself was taken into hospital for tests, and found to have a lowered white blood cell count.

General MacArthur cancelled Burchett’s press accreditation and announced he was to be expelled from Japan. Burchett left anyway, recalled by his newspaper.

What he saw in Hiroshima had a profound effect on him, hardening his left-wing and anti-American attitudes. He went on to report subsequent Asian conflicts from the Communist side — most notably in the Korean War.

During that conflict he reported that US forces were using germ warfare against the North Koreans — claims that were never verified. The credibility of a journalist responsible for the “scoop of the century”, never recovered from allegations that he became a Communist stooge.

Video: Wilfred Burchett interviewed about his ‘scoop of the century’.

On 19 September, the Americans — who now occupied Japan —issued a Press Code banning publication of studies of A-bomb damages, including medical and scientific studies of all injuries and losses suffered by the bomb’s victims, particularly those orphaned.

It even extended to the Japanese characters for “atomic bomb” (genshi bakudan) — these words could not be printed.

It has been claimed that this sanctioned ignorance meant doctors themselves struggled to understand what the problems were and the best treatments to give.

But by late November 1945, General Groves had stopped denying the radiation effects, but came armed with an argument designed to soothe troubled souls.

During a notorious exchange in a special Senate hearing, when asked a question about whether there was any medical antidote to excessive radiation, he replied:


I am not a doctor. But I will answer it anyway. The radioactive casualty can be of several classes. He can have enough that he will be killed instantly. He can have a smaller amount which will cause him to die rather soon, and as I understand it from the doctors, without undue suffering.

In fact, they say it is a very pleasant way to die.


The Hibakusha

The years that followed were not easy for survivors. They became known as the hibakusha — the “bomb-affected people”. There were more than 400,000, those who survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Perhaps a clue to their post war plight could have been read in the name itself, less about those who together experienced the atomic nightmare, more a simple mechanistic description hinting at an unspecified damage.

Yes, there was discrimination because of the physical scars forged in the firestorms that swept the city after the explosion. Thick keloids developed, the rubbery lesions smothering the skin which doctors at first tried to surgically remove before they realised in many cases they would simply grow back.

But many more hibakusha were simply ostracised, pushed to the social margins because of fears they had undergone some deep genetic mutation from the invisible, mysterious contagion of the radiation blast.

It fuelled the belief, a belief which became common, that it was best they should not marry and have children to prevent the mutations feeding into Japan’s new generations

There was talk of sterilisation programs.


I think that for the hibakusha exposed up to 2000m, sterilisation should be done… because of the tragedy for the family in the future [should there be an abnormal child] along with the social menace… We should set them aside and not mix with up with the rest of the population.


This was a quote from a leading Hiroshima politician given to the American psychiatrist Dr Robert Jay Lifton in his landmark 1967 book on the psychological damage of Hiroshima called Life in Death. The unnamed politician, a habikusha himself, had his wife sterilised to ensure “abnormal children” were not brought into the world.

The sentiment was obviously rooted in the folk mythologies that built-up around the bomb. And the tragedy was that the hibakusha shared the beliefs. So some opted not to marry, to remain childless.

These beliefs, as the epidemiological studies would later show, proved to be without scientific foundation. But in the vacuum of understanding, early on there were experiences that easily fed the collective fears.

In 1952 for instance, a study of 205 children exposed in utero to the radiation shower of Little Boy, of the 11 children whose mothers had been within 1.2 km of the bomb’s hypocentre and were badly mutilated, seven were born with shrunken heads and learning disabilities.

These numbers when measured against the scale of fatalities remain small. But they too need context. There weren’t many infants exposed in utero at the time that survived birth.

A US survey report a year after the bomb found all known cases of women in various stages of pregnancy who were within 1km of ground zero had miscarriages.

And of those who were up to 2.1km away, all had miscarriages or gave birth to premature infants who died shortly after delivery.

It added: “Two months after the explosion, the city’s total incidence of miscarriages, abortions, and premature births was 27% as compared with a normal rate of 6%.”

The unknown effects of radiation also meant that hibakusha, many of whom complained of a general, unexplained lethargy in their day-to-day lives, became obsessed with their health, obsessed with lumps and bumps and the signs of potential tumours.

Although it took time, the health issues were such that in 1957 the hibakusha were given cards offering them free access to healthcare. As Australian writer and journalist Paul Ham says, for the first time the Japanese government were recognising the hibakusha as medical casualties of war. But the social stigma of being known as one of the bomb’s victims, meant that some simply hid their health passports along with their past lives.

Around their experiences fell a silence which remained unbroken until the political activism of the 70s and 80s with the hibakusha fighting for greater public support, greater recognition, a voice.

Hiroshima: The Fallout

Junko remained in Hiroshima after the war as the city was rebuilt. Life was hard but she said the stigma and discrimination in a city where so many had been affected by the bomb was far less than that faced by the hibakusha who moved away.


In my school there were [school children] who survived and their backs had been burnt and other parts of their bodies but then the keloids became visible.

And the thing about the keloid scars is that they kept coming back. Operation after operation was carried out but they kept coming back.

So the school made special arrangements for us to wear long sleeves [so they could cover the scars]. Some of the children lost their hair, all of their hair so we wore cloth hats and went to school.

[But in Hiroshima] there were those who looked scary, those who suffered the blast in their face, they looked terrible. My teacher’s wife, my art teacher’s wife had her entire face burnt. She still had a normal life but she couldn’t close her eyes.

I would go to my teacher to learn drawing but I was scared of looking at her face.

I tried hard not to look at her.



The Atomic Maidens

While America was largely sheltered from the most brutal truths of the bomb — pictures taken of survivors on the day of the bomb were not published until the early 1950s — there were attempts among many Americans to support some of the victims.

This included assistance for a group of 25 Japanese women who were school-age girls when they were grossly disfigured as a result of the bomb’s thermal flash.

They were taken to the US in 1955 to undergo surgical transformation and became a media sensation of sorts. They were dubbed the Atomic Maidens because it was assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, they would never be able to marry.

Ten of the 'Hiroshima Maidens' arrive in New York. Dr Sadam Takahashi (right) holds the ashes of one girl who died during an operation.
Ten of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’ arrive in New York. Dr Sadam Takahashi (right) holds the ashes of one girl who died during an operation.

It was the first time the US public had come face-to-face with the hibakusha.

It has been argued this was a cosmetic veneer of the country’s Marshall Plan, the outstretched hand of the victorious to help a defeated foe. Others read the attempt to literally reconstruct the faces disfigured by the US’s miracle weapon as a metaphor of suppressed war guilt.

Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto (right) and one of the 'Hiroshima Maidens', shortly after arriving in the US.
Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto (right) and one of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’, shortly after arriving in the US.

The man responsible for the trip was Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist minister, a survivor of the bomb himself whose experience was documented in John Hersey’s book. He subsequently toured America to preach peace. He helped the women secure funding and medical care unavailable back in his homeland. The women spent 18 months in America under the knife – more than 140 surgeries, many undertaken for free at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

The surgery was to restore movement in their hands as well as separate fingers that had been fused together. One of the women — Michiko Yamaoka — underwent operations to the left side of her jaw which had been stuck to her shoulder. Her mouth had virtually melted, leaving her unable to smile.


In 1955 Reverend Tanimoto ended up on NBC’s This is Your Life, which immediately became one of the most troubling 30 minutes in the history of prime-time TV.

One of the running themes of the show’s format were a series of mystery guests — usually long lost friends, ex-teachers, forgotten employers — who were brought out to surprise the show’s subject. For Tanimoto, the TV producers decided to choose someone else. While millions watched at home, the man cast in silhouette standing behind the screen was Captain Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, from which the bomb was dropped.

There is studio applause as his identity is revealed.

The This Is Your Life host then asks Captain Lewis to describe his “experience” on the fateful day.

Captain Lewis, sweat on his face, says: “Well, Mr Edwards, just before 8.15am Tokyo time, Tom Ferribee — a very able bombardier — carefully aimed at his target, which was the Second Imperial Japanese Army headquarters. At 8.15 promptly, the bomb dropped. We turned fast to get out the way of the deadly radiation and bomb effects … Shortly after we turned back to what had happened. And there, in front of our eyes, the city of Hiroshima disappeared.”

Repeating the phrasing he had apparently written in a letter to his parents, he adds, “I wrote down later: ‘My God, what have we done?’”

Tanimoto and Captain Lewis, both clearly uncomfortable, are asked to shake hands. Then Lewis, who was by then out of the military working for a confectionery company, hands over $50 check to fund treatment of the bomb’s victims.

The show was apparently described by one TV critic as “commercialised sadism”.

Video: The Enola Gay co-pilot Captain Robert Lewis appears on This is Your Life.

The medical fallout

The medical question over the past 70 years has remained the question of radiation and its effects; from DNA damage to cancer to genetic mutations in subsequent generations — and whether there was substance to the fears survivors have suffered.

The US set out to get answers almost from the very beginning — perhaps as they realised the knowledge would be useful with the nuclear nature of its looming Cold War.

In 1947, Truman set up the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission to study — although controversially, not to treat — the hibakusha. It became one of the longest epidemiological medical studies in the world.

Within a decade, US physician Dr Jarrett Foley published the first major reports on the highly significant increased incidence of leukaemia among survivors within 2km of the bomb’s hypocentre.

Researchers were eventually able to compile maps identifying the physical location of survivors and the radiation doses to which they were exposed.

And then from this they were able to map — perhaps to little surprise — a clear dose-response relationship with the risk of leukaemia: almost all cases of leukaemia over the following half century in people exposed to more than 1Gy of radiation were found to be radiation related.

In terms of solid cancers, the bomb’s impact has been less stark.

Hiroshima: The Fallout

grey_20px  Unknown
red_20px  > 1 Gy
orange_20px  0.5-1 Gy
yellow_20px  0.2-0.5 Gy
green_20px  0.1-0.2
brown_20px  0.005-0.1 Gy
purple_20px  < 0.005 Gy

Location of individual survivors at the time of the bombing. Rings represent 2 and 3km distances from the hypocentre.
Source: Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness 2011; 5:S122-33

Some 11% of cases among more than 80,000 survivors assessed between 1958 and 1998 could be blamed on radiation exposure. This is the equivalent of 850 “excess” cancers.

There were significant associations between radiation exposure and thyroid, stomach, colon, oesophageal, liver, bladder, oral cavity, lung, breast, ovarian, brain and non-melanoma skin cancer.

In 2000 researchers were able to publish a study on the hard endpoint — the median loss of life had been about two months for the 90% of survivors exposed to less than 1Gy. It was 2.6 years for the 5% who were exposed to more than 1Gy.

Estimated proportion of radiation-related leukaemia cases in atomic bomb survivors between 1950 and 2001 according to radiation dose (Gy)

0.005 - 0.1
0.1 - 0.2
0.2 - 0.5
0.5 - 1
1 - 2

Source: Adapted from Radiation Research 2013; 179:361-82

Estimated proportion of radiation-related solid cancer cases in atomic bomb survivors between 1958 and 1998 according to radiation dose (Gy)

0.005 - 0.1
0.1 - 0.2
0.2 - 0.5
0.5 - 1
1 - 2

Source: Adapted from Radiation Research 2007; 168:1-64

The deep fears running through Japan after the war’s end — that the radiation burst was causing genetic mutations that would be passed on to children — have, thankfully, not been borne out.

Between 1948 and 1952, the US geneticists Dr James Neel and Professor William Schull, studied about 60,000 births of children not irradiated in-utero who were born to survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There was no evidence of increased birth defects or higher rates of stillbirths or reductions in birth weight.

Fifty years later, the Journal of Radiation Research gave an overview of all the genetic and biochemical studies that had been performed in the children born to survivors.

Again there was no indication of genetic effects in the offspring of survivors.

It suggests the physical effects of atomic bombs will probably end with the death of the hibakusha generation.

The ordinary lives

America’s declared target on 6 August 1945, as Captain Lewis explained, may have been the Second Imperial Japanese Army headquarters. But some 85% of those who died in Hiroshima were civilians — women, children, the frail, the old, the ones who weren’t in uniform.

This year, as the 70th anniversary looms, there will be another fraught debate about whether the bomb was necessary, whether it brought the war to an early end, the debate designed to prove by statistics that there was no alternative to this American atrocity.

Yes, the bomb was part of a greater tragedy with more than one act. 

Britain’s Dresden blitzkrieg, the Red Army’s systematic acts of rape and slaughter on its march to Berlin, the shocking Japanese Nanjing Massacre and the evil of the gas chambers themselves show all the major powers perpetrated the mass killing of ordinary people. 

None would have turned away from using atomic means in the total war they waged.

If there are lessons it may be simply that the huge number of the lives obliterated still blinds us to the moral essence of what was destroyed.

But today you can walk along a quiet street in the suburbs of Sydney, past the shop fronts, past the afternoon coffee drinkers and the silvery laughter of the school kids heading home. There you get to a white gate of a house and through the gate you reach a garden, and in the garden stands a small woman, walking stick in her left hand, fat pink slippers on her feet. Her face is lined with age.

And you see this is the ordinary life, the “million-petalled flower” of being here, which was denied to so many in the seconds after the bomb fell 70 years ago.

Junko Morimoto is now 83. She trained as a teacher and taught art to school children in Hiroshima after the war’s end. She began a family, and eventually followed them to Australia when she migrated in 1982.

A children’s author, her most famous book (whose illustrations run through the heart of this story) is her account of the bombing as a terrified 13-year-old girl who had been educated in “militarist times”.

She wants to prevent Hiroshima becoming a distant point in our history, she says. She wants to remind us of the true cost of “that horrible event”.


Watch the full interview with Junko Morimoto




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Junko Morimoto video

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Translator: Hiromi Kurosaka
Cinematographer: Alex Weinress

Special thanks to Matt Rowley, Deana Henn, Ayumi Mizoshiri, Ayumi Takaku for their support, help and advice.


Images and video

Getty Images

AAP Image

Corbis Images

Frontline Films

Hachette Australia

The University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston

Cambridge University Press

United States National Archives

Notes and references

The information in this article was pulled from a variety of sources. Below is a list of the main sources — books, websites and articles — that we used.

Hiroshima Nagasaki, by Paul Ham

Paul Ham, a former Sunday Times correspondent, argues in his excellent book that the dropping of the atom bombs were less about bringing the war to an early end but part a strategic campaign to target enemy civilians. He talks a length to survivors and gives a detailed account of the suffering of ordinary people.

Atomic Archive website

This website provides details on the workings of the Little Boy bomb. It also documents the human and physical effects of its detonation on Hiroshima and its people. The estimates of the numbers killed in the initial explosion vary significantly but generally run from 80,000 to 140,000 people.

E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis

This book gives a detailed account of the physics, of what happened inside the bomb when it detonated from where the opening of our article was based. He talks about the energy tying the neutrons together “wobbling”, again a phrase used in the story.

Hiroshima, by John Hersey

Hersey’s book was written just a year after the bomb was dropped. It follows the experiences of six Japanese survivors, including two doctors, in the aftermath of the explosion. The text in our article refers to the “sheet of sun” to describe the explosion and “the soundless flash”. The phrases come from Hersey’s book.

Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, by Michihiko Hachiya

Dr Michihiko Hachiya was a hospital doctor and survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. He kept a diary of his experience from 6 August to the end of September. The diary was published in 1955.

Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist: The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett

The story of Wilfred Burchett’s “scoop of the century” comes from his autobiography published in 2005.

This is Your Life

The story behind the appearance of Enola Gay’s co-pilot Captain Robert Lewis on This is Your Life comes from John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, when the book was updated with a new chapter called ‘Aftermath’ in 1985. There is also an account of the program on the Conelrad website page:

Hibakusha section

An account of the Atomic Maidens in America is given in a paper by Dr Robert Jacobs, a historian at Hiroshima City University, called ‘Reconstructing the Perpetrator’s Soul by Reconstructing the Victim’s Body’. It was published in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific in June 2010. Also see Amanda Jane Graham’s essay – ‘Re-covering the Hiroshima Maidens’, published in the book Medicine, Healing and Performance.

Hibakusha Stories

Hibakusha Stories is a website set up to educate students about the impact of the bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It offers testimonies from survivors about their experiences in the aftermath of the bombs.

Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, by Robert Jay Lifton

Dr Robert Lifton’s book is a classic study looking at the psychological effect of the bomb on the survivors — both immediately after the bomb and in the years that followed.

The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, June 30, 1946.

This document gives a detailed account of what the Americans found when they arrived in the bombed cities. It gives a blunt assessment of the physical effects of the bombs and the destruction they inflicted on the lives of the Japanese. It also suggests that the Americans knew little about the radiation effects of the weapons on people or how those effects should be treated.
The report concludes: “As the implementer and exploiter of this ominous weapon, our nation has a responsibility, which no American should shirk, to lead in establishing and implementing the international guarantees and controls which will prevent its future use.”

The Atomic Bomb Museum website

This website is another detailed education resource on both the making of the bomb and its use.

My Hiroshima by Junko Morimoto

Junko Morimoto’s account of her experience of the Hiroshima bomb as a 13-year-old girl.

Radiation Effects Research Foundation

 The history of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission set up in 1946 was always controversial. It was run by the Americans and its aim was to study and monitor the health damage of the bombs rather than treat victims themselves. The commission was frequently accused by the Japanese of using the hibakusha as guinea pigs. In 1975 it was reorganised and renamed the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. The foundation is a joint initiative between the Americans and the Japanese and aims to support the care and treatment of victims. The foundation has produced some of the most detailed, long-term evidence on the effects of atomic bombs on human health.



  1. jo
    August 3, 2015 @ 2:24 am

    great article!


  2. Justin Coleman
    August 3, 2015 @ 11:12 pm

    Thanks for such a poignant story to mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima. The first time I have read about it from a specifically medical viewpoint, and I found it very moving.
    I was intrigued that the knowledge about radiation effects took so long to filter out to the world – from a baseline of ‘nil’ among Hiroshima doctors in the first days, to its slow dissemination thanks to people like Wilfred Burchett.
    Congratulations on the substantial effort put into this presentation; I hope it is read by many.


  3. Dr Rob Richardson
    August 4, 2015 @ 8:32 am

    This article is a disgrace in a medical magazine.
    The bomb was dropped above a hospital.
    This is the greatest war crime ever committed on civilians.
    The perpetrators of this evil should be tried posthumously and treated as Pariahs in history.
    I do not buy the line that it saved white peoples lives.
    I am ashamed that this occurred, and I am disgusted it is in Australian Doctor


    • Scott
      August 17, 2015 @ 11:23 am

      Your comment bespeaks of the increasing horrendous revisionism that reveals a painful ignorance of history and reality. I do not have the time or space to provide a long list of examples, but a few are in order: Tarawa (an island the size of NYC Central Park)-approximately 1000 US Marines killed, approximately 4000 Japanese killed; Okinawa-approximately 2000 US Marines killed, several fold more Japanese; Iwo Jima-approximately 3500 US Marines killed, several fold more Japanese. There were tens of thousands of Marines who were grievously wounded; the Japanese numbers were again far greater. The Japanese refused to surrender after each of these costly battles which were growing in intensity, and this caused nearly 50,000 US deaths. The Imperial Army Command was warned of a greater response if they refused to surrender. This after the Imperial Army INTENTIONALLY murdered some 2.5 million Chinese citizens in Nanjing ALONE, some 150,000 Filipinos in Manila ALONE, and several million others. After the end of the war, the estimated MURDERS committed by the Imperial Army approached that of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa (some 25 million). One must also never forget the biological warfare experiments conducted by the Imperial Army Unit 731, which infected MANY Allied officers with plague, anthrax, viral encephalitis, typically with fatal results. Authors such as the excellent historian William Craig (“The Fall of Japan”) documented without any doubt that the ruling warlords such as Gen Anami, argued AFTER Hiroshima to attack the United States and Britain with everything they had left (he committed hari kiri in protest when that was refused after Nagasaki). It took Nagasaki AND the Russian declaration of war to force their unconditional surrender. As others have said here, there have been very well supported estimates of the probable cost of invasion of Japan based on the aforementioned increasing mindless human sacrifices and murders committed by the Imperial Army, as the Allies approached the Japanese home islands. Conservative figures ranged between 250,000-400,000 Allied losses and another 1-1.5 million Japanese. In addition, if you had a son, father or brother preparing to invade and likely be killed, would you be as dishonest to claim you wouldn’t have supported dropping the bombs considering the above, as well as the fact that it would likely save your loved one’s life? Or would you claim that you would say that they should be sacrificed to save the Japanese from what they brought upon themselves?? I might add that, like the SS mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust and of many Polish and Russian civilians (and others), the vast majority of Japanese war criminals were never brought to justice. However, to this day, the Germans teach the accurate history of their near destruction of the world, while the Japanese still do not accurately teach the history of why the war HAD to be ended in the tragic manner that was unfortunately necessary. Obviously, individuals like you enjoy professing ignorance as a right of your free speech, a right that you wouldn’t have if you were a lave under the Japanese or Nazis.


  4. APenNameAndThatA
    August 4, 2015 @ 8:56 am

    Go away. This has little to do with medicine. It has all to do with saying that the US was wrong for dropping the bomb. Some people say (no reference, so sue me) that 1 000 000 million people might have been killed in a single one of the conventional raids a little earlier in the war. In my view, bombing Hiroshima, and Germany, was a tragic necessity. A great service was done for the world by defeating Germany and Japan. If you would have preferred to live in a world dominated by Hitler and the Japanese military, you are out of luck, but, in my opinion, you deserve to have.


  5. Irwin Lim
    August 4, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    I recall visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The accounts and photos were shocking and so many of us visitors were in tears as we read and looked. This should never happen again.


  6. Andrew Nielsen
    August 5, 2015 @ 8:23 am

    This is political, not medical. It is all about how the US should not have dropped the bomb. The Allied did the world a great service by allowing the world to not live under the rule of Hitler and the Japanese military. It is said that conventional bombing of Japan might have killed 1 000 000 people on one night. The bombing of Japan and Germany was a tragic necessity.


  7. William Zhou
    August 6, 2015 @ 12:21 am

    A fantastically written article, mixing the mediums of audio and visual communication.



  8. Neil McKellar-Stewart
    August 6, 2015 @ 4:34 am

    One of the saddest, most gut wrenching books I’ve ever had to read and catalogue, back in 1981 when I was a librarian , was “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings” by The Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
    A massive 700+ page tome providing a summary and analysis by Japan’s leading physicists, physicians and social scientists of the full findings about the immediate damage of the bombs and their permanent medical, genetic, social, and psychological effects.
    It reinforced in my mind that the creation and deployment of the atomic bomb on a civilian population was one of the greatest evils of the 20th century, only falling behind the final solution of the nazis and the Armenian genocide.
    Lest we forget indeed.
    Thnx for creating this well conceived and documented website, highlighting the reporting of the somewhat infamous Australian reporter, Wilfred Burchett. Whatever one may think of his subsequent journalism and pro-communist sympathies, on his early reporting on Hiroshima one can but be thankful that he exposed the extent of the human tragedy. “Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world”


  9. Anonymous
    August 6, 2015 @ 12:41 pm



  10. Josh Chaffey
    August 6, 2015 @ 11:36 pm

    A deeply moving and superby well-reseached article. Thank you so much!


  11. Ky
    August 7, 2015 @ 2:21 am

    Oh dear lord, please! Never again, never again, never again!
    Its so horrible that now we stockpile bombs (around 15, 000) that are 70 times more powerful.
    Please please please,! Never again


  12. Andrew Walpole
    August 7, 2015 @ 8:58 am

    Well done.
    Dr. Bob
    We all live in the shadow of war and the nuclear bomb.
    If as you suggest we must not talk we face a worse alternative.


  13. John van Zeist
    August 9, 2015 @ 2:28 am

    For those ignorant enough to even remotely believe that anything of this was justified, where even the fact that the second bomb, on Nagasaki, was dropped a few days later, shame on you for choosing to be or act ignorant: “Never in the history of mankind, a war was started for the people, but it’s always the people that pay, either as taxpayers, or with their lives. Either as soldiers, or as civilians.” ~JvZ


  14. Dyson
    August 10, 2015 @ 1:19 am

    The surviving women of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that could conceive, who were exposed to substantial amounts of radiation, went on and had children with no higher incidence of abnormalities than the Japanese average. It was assumed in the 1983 book “Medical Consequences of Radiation Following a Global Nuclear War.


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