Released in concert with the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard follows in the footsteps of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, providing a harrowing account that begins on the morning of the bombing and extends to the present day. Southard’s approach is devastating yet necessary, and, as Ian Buruma said in the New York Times, it gives us “some idea of what it must have been like for people who were unlucky enough not to be killed instantly.” The below account, taken from the second chapter of Southard’s book, tells of the first moments when the bomb struck the small port city, killing 74,000. — Jonathon Sturgeon
From Chapter 2: Flashpoint
The five-ton plutonium bomb plunged toward the city at 614 miles per hour. Forty-seven seconds later, a powerful implosion forced its plutonium core to compress from the size of a grapefruit to the size of a tennis ball, generating a nearly instantaneous chain reaction of nuclear fission. With colossal force and energy, the bomb detonated a third of a mile above the Urakami Valley and its thirty thousand residents and workers, a mile and a half north of the intended target. At 11:02 a.m., a superbrilliant flash lit up the sky—visible from as far away as Omura Naval Hospital more than ten miles over the mountains—followed by a thunderous explosion equal to the power of twenty-one thousand tons of TNT. The entire city convulsed.
At its burst point, the center of the explosion reached temperatures higher than at the center of the sun, and the velocity of its shock wave exceeded the speed of sound. A tenth of a millisecond later, all of the materials that had made up the bomb converted into an ionized gas, and electromagnetic waves were released into the air. The thermal heat of the bomb ignited a fireball with an internal temperature of over 540,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Within one second, the blazing fireball expanded from 52 feet to its maximum size of 750 feet in diameter. Within three seconds, the ground below reached an estimated 5,400 to 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Directly beneath the bomb, infrared heat rays instantly carbonized human and animal flesh and vaporized internal organs.
As the atomic cloud billowed two miles overhead and eclipsed the sun, the bomb’s vertical blast pressure crushed much of the Urakami Valley. Horizontal blast winds tore through the region at two and a half times the speed of a category five hurricane, pulverizing buildings, trees, plants, animals, and thousands of men, women, and children. In every direction, people were blown out of their shelters, houses, factories, schools, and hospital beds; catapulted against walls; or flattened beneath collapsed buildings. Those working in the fields, riding streetcars, and standing in line at city ration stations were blown off their feet or hit by plummeting debris and pressed to the scalding earth. An iron bridge moved twenty-eight inches downstream. As their buildings began to implode, patients and staff jumped out of the windows of Nagasaki Medical College Hospital, and mobilized high school girls leaped from the third story of Shiroyama Elementary School, a half mile from the blast.
The blazing heat melted iron and other metals, scorched bricks and concrete buildings, ignited clothing, disintegrated vegetation, and caused severe and fatal flash burns on people’s exposed faces and bodies. A mile from the detonation, the blast force caused nine-inch brick walls to crack, and glass fragments bulleted into people’s arms, legs, backs, and faces, often puncturing their muscles and organs. Two miles away, thousands of people suffering flesh burns from the extreme heat lay trapped beneath partially demolished buildings. At distances up to five miles, wood and glass splinters pierced through people’s clothing and ripped into their flesh. Windows shattered as far as eleven miles away. Larger doses of radiation than any human had ever received penetrated deeply into the bodies of people and animals. The ascending fireball suctioned massive amounts of thick dust and debris into its churning stem. A deafening roar erupted as buildings throughout the city shuddered and crashed to the ground.
“It all happened in an instant,” Yoshida remembered. He had barely seen the blinding light half a mile away before a powerful force hit him on his right side and hurled him into the air. “The heat was so intense that I curled up like surume [dried grilled squid].” In what felt like dreamlike slow motion, Yoshida was blown backward 130 feet across a field, a road, and an irrigation channel, then plunged to the ground, landing on his back in a rice paddy flooded with shallow water.
Inside the Mitsubishi Ōhashi weapons factory, Dō-oh had been wiping perspiration from her face and concentrating on her work when PAAAAAHT TO! — an enormous blue-white flash of light burst into the building, followed by an earsplitting explosion. Thinking a torpedo had detonated inside the Mitsubishi plant, Dō-oh threw herself onto the ground and covered her head with her arms just as the factory came crashing down on top of her.
In his short-sleeved shirt, trousers, gaiters, and cap, Taniguchi had been riding his bicycle through the hills in the northwest corner of the valley when a sudden burning wind rushed toward him from behind, propelling him into the air and slamming him facedown on the road. “The earth was shaking so hard that I hung on as hard as I could so I wouldn’t get blown away again.”
Nagano was standing inside the school gymnasium-turned-airplane parts factory, protected to some degree by distance and the wooded mountains that stood between her and the bomb. “A light flashed— pi- KAAAAH!” she remembered. Nagano, too, thought a bomb had hit her building. She fell to the ground, covering her ears and eyes with her thumbs and fingers according to her training as windows crashed in all around her. She could hear pieces of tin and broken roof tiles swirling and colliding in the air outside.
Two miles southeast of the blast, Wada was sitting in the lounge of Hotarujaya Terminal with other drivers, discussing the earlier derailment. He saw the train cables flash. “The whole city of Nagasaki was — the light was indescribable — an unbelievably massive light lit up the whole city.” A violent explosion rocked the station. Wada and his friends dived for cover under tables and other furniture. In the next instant, he felt like he was floating in the air before being slapped down on the floor. Something heavy landed on his back, and he fell unconscious.
Beneath the still-rising mushroom cloud, a huge portion of Nagasaki had vanished. Tens of thousands throughout the city were dead or injured. On the floor of Hotarujaya Terminal, Wada lay beneath a fallen beam. Nagano was curled up on the floor of the airplane parts factory, her mouth filled with glass slivers and choking dust. Dō-oh lay injured in the wreckage of the collapsed Mitsubishi factory, engulfed in smoke. Yoshida was lying in a muddy rice paddy, barely conscious, his body and face brutally scorched. Taniguchi clung to the searing pavement near his mangled bicycle, not yet realizing that his back was burned off. He lifted his eyes just long enough to see a young child “swept away like a fleck of dust.”
Sixty seconds had passed.
From NAGASAKI: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Susan Southard, 2015.