Flashback Hiroshima: Charred bodies, smell of burned flesh

In Focus

Charred bodies bobbed in the brackish waters that flowed through Hiroshima 70 years ago this week, after a once-vibrant Japanese city was consumed by the searing heat of the world’s first nuclear attack.

The smell of burned flesh filled the air as scores of survivors with severe burns dived into rivers to escape the inferno. Countless hundreds never emerged, pushed under the surface by the mass of desperate humanity.

“It was a white, silvery flash,” Sunao Tsuboi, 90, said of the moment when the United States unleashed what was then the most destructive weapon ever produced.

“I don’t know why I survived and lived this long,” said Tsuboi. “The more I think about it… the more painful it becomes to recall.”

Seven decades since the attack, the city of 1.2 million people is once again thriving as a commercial hub, but the scars of the bombing — physical and emotional — still remain.

Mushroom cloud

It was 8 15 am on August 6, 1945 when a B-29 bomber called Enola Gay flying high over the city released Little Boy, a uranium bomb with a destructive force equivalent to 16 kilotons of TNT.

Just 43 seconds later, when it was 600 metres (1,800 feet) from the ground, it erupted into a blistering fireball burning at a million degrees Celsius (1.8 million Fahrenheit).

Nearly everything around it was incinerated, with the ground level hit by a wall of heat up to 4,000 degrees Celsius — hot enough to melt steel.

Stone buildings survived, but bore the shadows of anything — or anyone — that was charred in front of them.

Gusts of around 1.5 kilometres (one mile) a second roared outwards carrying with them shattered debris, and packing enough force to rip limbs and organs from bodies.

The air pressure suddenly dropped due to the blast, crushing those on the ground, and an ominous mushroom cloud rose, towering 16 kilometres above the city.

About 140,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the attack, including those who survived the bombing itself but died soon afterwards due to severe radiation exposure.

Tsuboi, then a college student, was about 1.2 kilometres from the hypocentre and was literally blown away by the blast and blinding heat.

When he picked himself up, his shirt, trousers and skin flapped from his burned body; blood vessels dangled from open wounds and part of his ears were missing. 

Tsuboi remembers seeing a teenage girl with her right eyeball hanging from her face. Nearby, a woman grasped at her torso in a futile attempt to stop her intestines from falling through a gaping hole.

“There were bodies all over the place,” he said. “Ones with no limbs, all charred. I said to myself: ‘Are they human?'”

Many died of their terrible injuries over the following hours and days; lying where they fell, desperate for help that would never come, or even just for a sip of water.

‘Changed lives’

For those that survived, there was the terrifying unknown of radiation sickness still to come.

Gums bled, teeth fell out, hair came off in clumps; there were cancers, premature births, malformed babies and sudden deaths.

As tales of the new, unknown illness spread through the war-ravaged country, survivors were shunned out of fear they might bring infection.

Three days after Hiroshima, the US military dropped a plutonium bomb on the port city of Nagasaki, killing some 74,000 people.

The twin bombings dealt the final blows to imperial Japan, which surrendered on August 15, 1945, bringing an end to World War II.

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