Sixty-five years ago Sunday, a giant cloud mushroomed over Hiroshima, and with it came the deaths of tens of thousands of Japanese. That cloud cast a dark shadow across a once-thriving city, the Japanese empire and the whole world, where it still lingers.
It was the first use of an atomic bomb as a weapon of war and only the second atomic explosion. The Trinity test at Alamogordo, N.M., on July 16, 1945, was the first nuclear explosion of any kind.
As the B-29 Enola Gay flew on its mission over the Pacific with Col. Paul Tibbets as pilot and a crew of airmen, scientists and experts, Hiroshima was a city of 350,000 of no particular military importance.
Unlike most other bombing raids, the goal this time was not a military installation but the destruction without warning of an entire city. When the “Little Boy” uranium-235 bomb went off, 70,000 women, children and soldiers died immediately from the explosion and another 70,000 died from radiation during the next five years.
Within three miles of the blast, 60,000 of 90,000 buildings were demolished. Metal and stone melted. The shadows of vaporized people were ghostly imprints on whatever flat surfaces still existed.
It was not enough, however, to drive the Japanese into surrender. Perhaps they thought this was a one-of-a-kind device and the United States had no more.
If that was the calculation, it was a mistake.
Three days later, during the next break in the weather over Japan, the industrial city of Nagasaki faced atomic destruction.
A bomb of different design but equally lethal - the plutonium “Fat Man” weapon - laid waste the second-choice target. It was Nagasaki’s bad luck that the primary target of Kokura had been obscured by smoke and haze.
It was estimated later that this bomb was 40 percent more powerful than the one that had annihilated Hiroshima.
A conventional bombing raid on Nagasaki on Aug. 1 had prompted a partial evacuation of the city, especially of schoolchildren, but almost 200,000 people still lived there. The best estimate is that 40,000 people died instantly and 60,000 more were injured. By January 1946, the number of deaths approached 70,000, with perhaps twice that number dead within five years.
Almost all homes within 1 1/2 miles of the explosion were destroyed. Of the 52,000 homes in the city, 14,000 were destroyed and 5,400 seriously damaged. The devastation to industrial and business structures was equally severe.
Five days later, the Japanese gave up.
For the first time, ordinary folk in the country heard the voice of their emperor - worshipped as a god - and it was telling them that Japan could fight no more.
There is some confusion about the proper date for V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day), the day of surrender. The Associated Press uses Aug. 15 because that was the Tokyo date of Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast. It was Aug. 14 in Washington, however, when President Truman announced the Allied victory in the Pacific.
And so the cataclysmic conflict of World War II ended with those two big bangs.
It is hard today to imagine the havoc - and the effort - of the war. Out of a population of about 135 million, the United States put more than 16 million people into military uniforms. Battle deaths totaled more than 292,000 with 115,000 deaths from other causes. The wounded added 673,000 more to the toll.
Just think - the equivalent toll for today’s U.S. population would be something like 2.5 million.
And the United States got off comparatively lightly among the major combatants. Japan had two major cities wiped out by atomic blasts, and its capital, Tokyo, was pretty well leveled by firebombing.
Germany was equally flattened by massive air raids and artillery barrages from east and west. Italy was mauled almost as severely.
Of our allies, the Soviet Union often used the lives of its troops to make up for shortages of equipment, and casualties were almost beyond belief. Britain entered the war nearly at the beginning and was bloodied every year that the fighting lasted. France, though defeated, managed to form an army of liberation and essentially was fought over twice. China was brutalized by the Japanese acting as combatants and as an occupying force.
All these countries, Allies and Axis both, suffered civilian casualties that are impossible to calculate. Beyond those numbers loom the millions consumed by the Holocaust.
In the war’s aftermath, there was second-guessing as to whether Truman should have authorized the use of the bombs. In reality, he had no choice. No leader of a democracy could reject the use of a weapon that could save a single one of his people’s lives.
Casualty estimates for an invasion of Japan were staggering. Estimated losses from a campaign to take the first home island ranged from 300,000 to 1 million. The Army was ordering body bags and medical supplies and trying to find medics, nurses and doctors to deal with casualties of that magnitude.
It’s all enough to make one humble - and to bring to mind the old adage: History ignored or forgotten is history repeated.
Even a partial repetition of World War II would truly create hell on Earth.
Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a freelance writer.