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article number 674
article date 07-20-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
All Brains Together—First to Develop the Atom Bomb, Part 14: Hiroshima in Havoc: A Witnessing Reverend’s Story, August 6-7, 1945
by William Laurence, Reporter, New York Times

From the 1946 book, Dawn Over Zero.

* * *

WHEN the atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was as though a flaming fragment from the bowels of one of the hottest stars, three times hotter than the temperature at the center of the sun, had landed on the earth.

At the instant of the explosion, forces of super-terrestrial magnitude, fire, blast, pressure, wind, radiant energy, spread death and devastation for miles around.

The blast, equal to that of the explosion of more than 20,000 tons of TNT, pushes the air in front of it, creating pressures greater than any ever experienced on earth.

The pressure wave is followed by great winds blowing at five hundred to a thousand miles per hour, five to ten times more violent than a hurricane.

The radiant energy, similar in kind to X-rays or the gamma rays from radium, is liberated in such quantities at the moment of the explosion that no life can stand up against it within a region of several thousand feet.

In addition to these rays, which are quickly absorbed in the environment and lose their effect, there is also liberated a tremendous quantity of radioactive substances, the fission products of U.235 or plutonium, which in the maximum case are equivalent to thousands of tons of radium. If the bomb is exploded close to the ground, as was not the case in Japan, these “tons of radium,” deposited over a large area, may make it uninhabitable for a long time.

The Reverend John B. Siemes, S.J., thirty-nine-year old German-born Jesuit priest, had come to Hiroshima
from ruined Tokyo, where he had served as professor of modern philosophy at Catholic University. That Monday morning in August he sat by the window in his room at the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus, from which he had a clear view down the valley to the edge of the city, about three miles away. He tells what he saw in ’Jesuit Missions.’

It was a bright, clear summer morning. An air-raid alarm had sounded about seven o’clock, no doubt provoked by the weather-scouting planes that preceded the ’Enola Gay.’ The all-clear came at eight. Suddenly, at about 8.14, Hiroshima time, the whole valley was filled by a garish light, while at the same time Father Siemes became conscious of a wave of heat.

As he made for the door, he heard a moderately loud explosion. The window broke in with a loud crash and he was sprayed with fragments of glass. The entire window frame had been forced into the room, and he was
bleeding from cuts about the hands and head. He was under the impression that a bomb had burst directly overhead.

He forced an opening in the jammed door by repeated blows with his hands and feet and came to the broad hallway, from which opened the various rooms. All windows were broken and all doors forced inwards. He found most of his colleagues injured by fragments of glass.

Down in the valley, at a distance of about one kilometer from the novitiate, or five eighths of a mile, several peasant homes were on fire, and the woods on the opposite side of the valley were aflame.

Over the city clouds of smoke were rising. A procession of people began to stream up the valley from the city. “The crowd thickens. Their steps are dragging, their faces blackened. Many are bleeding or have suffered burns.”

Father Siemes and his colleagues gave them first aid and brought them into the chapel.

Hiroshima destruction.

About four o’clock in the afternoon came a report that the parish church, the parish house, and adjoining buildings in the center of the city had burned down, that Father Superior Lassalle and Father Schiffer had been seriously injured, and that they had taken refuge in Asano Park on the river bank.

Father Siemes and his colleagues hurriedly got together two stretchers and rushed toward the city.

The closer they got, the greater was the evidence of destruction. Houses on the outskirts were all severely damaged. Farther in they found all dwellings consumed by fire.

They made their way to the street on the river bank and twice were forced into the river itself by the heat and smoke. All along they met people frightfully burned. By the wayside were many dead and dying.

On the Misasi Bridge they met a procession of soldiers who had suffered burns. Abandoned on the bridge, a number of horses with large burns on their flanks stood with sunken heads.

They finally reached the entrance to the park. Even the trees were on fire in several places. A large portion of the populace had taken refuge there. Fallen trees made the paths and bridges almost impassable.

At a far corner in the park they at last came upon their injured colleagues. It was now quite dark. Father Schiffer was lying on the ground deadly pale. He had a deep cut behind his ear and had lost so much blood that they feared for his life. Father Lassalle had suffered a deep wound in his leg.

They were in their rooms in the parish house, they told Father Siemes and the others, when came the intense light and immediately afterward the sound of breaking windows, walls, and furniture.

The church and all buildings in the vicinity collapsed at once. Soon fires that had begun some distance away were raging ever closer. It was high time to flee.

The secretary of the mission, Mr. Fuaki, was completely out of his mind. He refused to leave the house, explaining that he did not want to survive the destruction of his fatherland.

Completely uninjured, he was carried away by force. By that time the way they had meant to flee was no longer open and so they made their way to Asano Park. Fuaki refused to go farther and remained behind. He had not been heard from since.

The transportation of their wounded was difficult. Were they to be carried on the shaky litters in the dark, they would suffer unbearable pain and lose dangerously large quantities of blood.

A Japanese Protestant pastor came to the rescue. He had brought along a boat and offered to take the wounded upstream to a place where progress was easier.

They landed on a sandspit that jutted out from the shore. It was covered with wounded, screaming for aid, for they were afraid of drowning when the river rose with the incoming tide. However, Father Siemes records, they had to press on.

Bloodbath at Okinawa: 100,000 Dead. War weary American soldiers in the battle of Okinawa.

A group of soldiers came along the road and their officer noticed that the priests were speaking a foreign language. He at once drew his sword, screamed at them, and threatened to cut them down. Father Laures, Jr., seized his arm and explained that they were German.

The officer had believed that they might well be Americans who had parachuted down, as many rumors of parachutes were being circulated about the city.

It had become midnight. They determined to remove Father Schiffer first to the outskirts of the city. Despite all precautions their progress was stumbling. One of the bearers fell, carrying the litter with him. Father Schiffer became unconscious from the fall and vomited.

At the outskirts of the city they put down the litter and turned back to fetch the Father Superior. Most of the ruins were by now burned out. The pungent smell, one of them remarked, reminded him of burned corpses. They finally arrived at the novitiate about half past four. It had taken them almost twelve hours, whereas normally one could go to the city and back in two hours.

Father Siemes got two hours’ sleep on the floor. It was now the 7th of August, the anniversary of the restitution of the Society of Jesus. He said a Mass ’in gratiarum actionem’ and they took off again.

The bright day now revealed the frightful picture that had been partly concealed by the darkness the night before.

Where the city had stood, everything, as far as the eye could reach, was a waste of ashes and ruin.

The banks of the river were covered with dead and wounded. The rising waters had already covered some of the corpses.

Naked burned cadavers were particularly numerous. Among them were wounded still alive. A few had crawled under burned-out autos and trolley cars.

They made their way to the spot where their church had stood. In the ashes they found a few molten remnants of the holy vessels.

They took under their care fifty refugees. The Father Rector treated the wounded as well as he could, but he had to confine himself in general to cleansing the wounds of purulent matter. Even those with smaller burns were very weak, and all suffered from diarrhea.

In the eyes of the people, this work, Father Siemes states, “was a greater boost for Christianity than all our work during the preceding long years.”

During the next few days funeral processions passed the novitiate from morning to night, bringing the dead to a small valley near by, where they were burned.

People brought their own wood and cremated the bodies themselves. Late at night the little valley was lit by the funeral pyres.

The magnitude of the disaster that befell Hiroshima [Father Siemes continues] was only slowly pieced together in my mind. As a result of the explosion, almost the entire city was destroyed at a single blow. The small Japanese houses in a diameter of five kilometers [about three miles] collapsed or were blown away.

Injured Japanese at Hiroshima.

Those in the houses were buried in the ruins. Those in the open sustained burns.

Fires spread rapidly. The heat which rose from the ground created a whirlwind which spread the fire throughout the whole city. As much as six kilometers from the center of the explosion all houses were damaged, and many collapsed and caught fire.

Hiroshima had a total population of 400,000. Official statistics place the number who died at 70,000 up to September 1, not counting the missing, and the 130,000 wounded, among them 43,500 severely wounded. Estimates made by ourselves on the basis of groups known to us show that the number of 100,000 dead is not too high.

In February 1946, Supreme Allied Headquarters announced that the casualties in Hiroshima as the result of the atomic bomb were: dead, 78,150; still missing, 13,983; seriously wounded, 9,428; slightly injured, 27,997.

Thousands of the wounded who died later [Father Siemes writes] “could doubtless have been rescued had they received proper treatment and care, but rescue work in a catastrophe of this magnitude had not been envisaged. Since the whole city had been knocked out at a blow, everything prepared for emergency work was lost, and no preparation had been made for rescue work in the outlying districts.

Many of the wounded also died because they had weakened by undernourishment and consequently lacked the strength to recover. Those who had their normal strength and received good care slowly healed of their burns.

It was also noised about that the ruins of the city emitted deadly rays, that many workers who went to aid in the clearing died, and that the central district would be uninhabitable for some time to come. I have my doubts as to whether such talk is true.

There were cases, however, whose prognosis seemed good where death supervened suddenly. Some who had only small external wounds died within a week or later, after an inflammation of the pharynx and oral cavity.

There cannot be any doubt that the bomb’s radiation had some effect on the blood. However, myself and others who worked in the ruined area for some hours shortly after the explosion suffered no ill effects.

Only about one person in every house or two within a thousand yards from the blast escaped death from blast or burn.

Many crawled out of the wreck of their homes uninjured, but they died from the effect of the radiations emitted at the instant of the explosion (as distinguished from the radiations from the fission products, which were negligible in the Japanese cities because the bomb was detonated at a considerable distance from the ground).

Bloodbath at Okinawa: 100,000 Dead. Kamikaze attack on USS Bunker Hill.

The day before the bomb was dropped, 40,000 people came into Hiroshima to evacuate it. They had started work at seven that morning. All of them were killed by the bomb. Of three hundred registered physicians, more than 260 were unable to aid the injured. Of 2,400 nurses, orderlies, and trained first-aid workers, more than 1,800 were made casualties in a single instant.

Twenty-six of the thirty-three modern fire stations in Hiroshima were made useless and three quarters of the firemen killed or missing. Not one hospital in the city was left in condition to shelter patients from the rain.

The commanding general in the area and all his staff were killed, including 5,000 soldiers of a garrison of 8,000.

The power and telephone service were cut off over the entire central region of the city. The streets were filled with debris, and thousands of fires burned unchecked among the injured and the dead.

In Hiroshima, according to a report by Dr. Robert Serber:

"one walks for miles through a completely abandoned, forgotten and deserted desert of broken tile and rusty sheet iron—once the residential area. In the center of the city, all that remains are the shells of concrete buildings, with completely gutted interiors.

"Nagasaki was an industrial city, with huge factories similar in construction to our own. From a distance, the parts of these factories still standing have a peculiarly drunken aspect—steel frames of buildings leaning far from the vertical, bent away from the point at which the bomb struck. Standing inside the remains, you are in the midst of a mass of twisted steel wreckage, tied in knots.

"Japanese residential houses in both cities were almost completely wiped out to a distance of two miles from where the bomb struck. Minor damage extended to five miles. The destruction of life was so great that it will never be possible to know accurately how many people were killed."

Dr. Serber saw many corpses, many charred bodies, many piles of bones, and many patients with horrible burns.

But he saw even more striking sights on the streets. He saw many people “who looked as if they had bad a bad sunburn.” On looking closely, however, one saw that “the burn might be only on one side of the face, or there might be a sharp shadow of a nose across the cheek, or the shadow of an ear.”

These were “shadows in reverse and gave a striking picture of how people were frozen in a set position when the bomb exploded. These shadows photographed the individual’s actual position in relationship to the bomb.”

In Nagasaki the factory buildings are situated in a valley surrounded on three sides by hills. Autumn came prematurely to the hills of this valley. The trees were yellow and brown with brilliant fall colors. The leaves were burned from the intense heat of the bomb.

On the far side of the ridges of the valley, the trees retained their summer green, showing in sharp contrast the color these hills had been before.

Nagasaki destruction.

Chief of Police Hirokuni Dazai, one of the Hiroshima survivors, saw “first a little spark, then a great flash. Trees swayed as in a great wind. Then my house fell down and started burning. The city was afire and the mountains were in flames.

"I tried to get into Hiroshima, a mile away, but I couldn’t, because of the heat. Everything was scorched to the ground. Every living thing was blackened and dead—-or waiting to die.”

A Japanese newspaperman who arrived long before any American correspondents said he alighted from the train to find that the railway station, one of western Japan’s largest, no longer existed. “There was a sweeping view right to the mountains north, south, and east—the city had vanished.”

And to a small boy who saw it all, it was “very, very bright, like great big sun.”

Bloodbath at Okinawa: 100,000 Dead. Japanese dead at the Battle of Okinawa.
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