What Happened Immediately After the Bombs Were Dropped on Japan  

Christopher Myers
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At the end of WWII, Japan was in nearly total devastation, and the civilians who remained loyal to their country and Emperor were having a particularly difficult time. But when the Japanese military said "fight on," there really wasn't any doubt that the order would be followed. In an effort to put an end to these shenanigans while there were still some people left living on the Japanese home islands, the US decided to roll up with Little Boy and Fat Man.

Those were the names of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The aftermath of the atomic bombs can only be described as complete devastation. After Hiroshima was bombed, chaos ensued. The immediate aftermath of the Nagasaki bomb was equally chaotic but in a much different way.

In total, the two bombs killed an estimated 103,000 people as a result of the blast itself, the ensuing fires, and long-term radiation poisoning, according to the World Nuclear Association. The Hiroshima bomb is believed to have killed 45,000 people in the first day alone. That was just under 1/5 of the city's total population. The death count in Nagasaki was smaller, but 22,000 on the first day of the bomb dropping is nothing to scoff at. Between the bombs and the multitude of other bad things raining down on Japan, the immediate postwar years were pretty brutal times.

First Came The Blast That Tore Bodies Apart
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Photo:  Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group/Getty Images

At 8:15 am on August 6, 1945, the citizens of Hiroshima were just starting their day under a clear, beautiful sky. Unbeknownst to them, the Enola Gay had just unloaded the Little Boy atomic bomb, which was plummeting toward the unsuspecting city. When the bomb reached 1,900 feet above Shima Surgical Hospital... bang. A flash of light 10 times brighter than the sun lit up the city, blinding those unlucky enough to be staring at it.

Those within the immediate blast radius were the lucky ones; they died instantly. Some were instantly incinerated, leaving behind shadows burned into the very ground beneath them, referred to as nuclear shadows. In the most famous nuclear shadow (shown above), a person was sitting on the steps of a bank, waiting for it to open. These steps were later moved to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum for preservation, where they can be viewed today.

Almost instantly, shock waves rippled through the town. As Life Magazine put it in 1946: "In the following waves 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."

Then Came The Firestorm That Incinerated A City
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Photo:  George R. Caron/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The atomic burst was estimated to have reached over a million degrees Celsius, igniting the air surrounding it on its descent. The fireball, which began at 840 feet in diameter, also kept expanding on its way down, a small sun engulfing the sky above the city. The intense levels of heat and radiation from the fireball began to light everything in the vicinity on fire. And - before the bomb was even done exploding - a massive firestorm began to engulf the city.

The intense firestorm completely incinerated everything within 4.4 miles of ground zero. This was not like other fire-bombing raids, however. In conventional fire-bombing attacks, the hollowed out shells of buildings remained standing. In Hiroshima, there was nothing left, save a few pieces of steel reinforced concrete. Even modern, well-constructed buildings were completely destroyed.

Looking back at the mushroom cloud billowing up above the unfolding devastation, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, Captain Robert Lewis, commented, "My God, what have we done?"

People Thought They Had Died And Gone To Hell
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Photo: Cpl. Lynn P. Walker, Jr./Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The destruction wrought by the bomb was so inconceivable that many people thought that they were in Hell. Others thought that the world had ended. With dead bodies, fire, and destruction as far as the eye could see, such a conclusion was not far off the mark. Survivors of the atomic bomb are called Hibakusha in Japan, and their eyewitness accounts shed some light into the utter horror of the scene:

"Near the bridge there were a whole lot of dead people... Sometimes there were ones who came to us asking for a drink of water. They were bleeding from their faces and from their mouths and they had glass sticking in their bodies. And the bridge itself was burning furiously... The details and the scenes were just like Hell," a six-year-old boy recounted.

A protestant minister explained that: "the feeling I had was that everyone was dead. The whole city was destroyed... I thought this was the end of Hiroshima - of Japan - of humankind... This was God's judgment on man."

A Black Rain Fell

In both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about 30-40 minutes after the bomb exploded, a black rain began to fall down like a scene out of some horror film. The radioactive isotopes, combined with debris and airborne particles thrown high into the air by the bomb, had mixed with water vapor and condensed. The deadly, radioactive rain fell on the unsuspecting victims bellow, some of whom were so thirsty that they attempted to drink it.