In the center of Hiroshima, in a part of the city totally destroyed by the explosion and ensuing fires, a long-lost photograph taken shortly after the blast has been discovered among a collection of articles about the bombing.
The picture is a rare glimpse of the bomb's immediate aftermath, showing the distinct two-tiered cloud as it was seen from Kaitaichi, part of present-day Kaita, six miles east of Hiroshima's center. Reprints of the image did appear in a 1988 Japanese-language publication, but the whereabouts of the original were unknown. There are only a couple of other photos in existence (two, possibly three) that capture the cloud from the vantage point of the ground. And, according to the Japanese paper Asahi Shimbun, there is only one other photograph that provides as clear a picture of the separated tiers of the cloud, and that is a photo taken from the Enola Gay as it zipped away.
The Asahi Shimbun and AFP reports about the recently recovered photo point to a bit of confusion over when, exactly, it was taken. On the back of the photo, a note puts the time at two minutes after the blast. But in the 1988 book in which the picture was reprinted, the editors placed it 20 to 30 minutes later. Would it be possible to assess the validity of these conflicting figures based solely on the evidence in the picture?
I reached out to American Institute of Physics nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein to see if a more definite answer were possible. He compared the image to other photos whose timestamps we more or less know, as well as to a chart prepared by Manhattan Project scientists depicting the cloud's progression. “In looking at those,” he said, “it looks like it was taken slightly after another photo which is supposed to be the cloud at about 20,000 feet.” That elevation—20,000 feet—would have been reached about two to three minutes after the explosion, and this picture was taken slightly after that.
“There are photos taken about 10 minutes after, which show that the cloud is a really different shape at that point,” he continued. Based on that timeline, he places this picture somewhere within the two-to-five-minute window, and rules out the 20-to-30-minute window.
As you look at the photo, your mind inevitably turns to the people below. What was it like in those first few minutes after the bomb? I asked Wellerstein and he replied:
Most of the direct effects of the bomb are going to be delivered in the first 10 seconds or so—and a lot of them faster than that. You've already got the first thing that happens, which is this huge amount of radiation and heat: Anybody who's exposed to radiation might not die instantly, but they're going to die to pretty soon, within a week or so. The heat is going to give people third-degree burns within a fairly wide radius.
A few seconds later there's this huge pressure blast. It's like a big puff of air. It blows in all the windows; it tips over the little stoves that they use for cooking breakfast. This happens at 8:15 or so in the morning, so it tips over all those little, tiny charcoal stoves. So by a couple of minutes, you've got the beginnings of a very large fire. It's not yet at a firestorm—that happens pretty soon afterward—but you've got all these little tiny fires, started either by the heat of the bomb itself or by the fact that all of these fire sources are knocked over and these Japanese houses are all made out of wood and paper.
And, as bad as that is, the worst was yet to come: “From a couple of minutes after and continuing for several hours, everything is on fire, everyone is confused. A lot of people are dead. A lot of people are dead but don't know it yet—they've been exposed to fatal amounts of radiation. So it's pretty bad on the ground at that time.” As the fire spreads, the winds pick up, creating tornado-like conditions which, as Father John A. Siemes—a Catholic priest living at Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Nagatsuke, about two kilometers away—later remembered, “begins to uproot large trees, and lifts them high into the air.”
For people trapped in that chaos, no one possibly could have understood that all of this destruction came from one single bomb. Everyone thought they themselves must have been very close to where the bomb hit. Father Siemes, who was two kilometers away, recalled seeing a flash of light, then hearing an explosion. Then, about 10 seconds after the light, “I am sprayed by fragments of glass. The entire window frame has been forced into the room. I realize now that a bomb has burst and I am under the impression that it exploded directly over our house or in the immediate vicinity.”
Yet even given the delay between the flash of light, the sound, and the explosion, Siemes and his colleagues went to the front of the house to see where the bomb landed. All of the survivors he later encountered had the same impression “that the bomb had burst in their immediate vicinity.” The fact that one massive bomb, kilometers away, could cause this sort of force and devastation defied belief.
“Everybody is running around saying, ‘Oh, it's weird, my house randomly got hit by a bomb,’” Wellerstein describes it. “When the answer is, no, no, no—you guys are actually fairly far away from the bomb and it was only one bomb. It was huge.”
“I've always thought that that was a powerful illustration of how long it takes your brain to wrap around something that is just so unfamiliar,” he continued.
The person who took this photo would have been among the first to look out there and realize that this wasn't just your run-of-the-mill bomb. It wasn't the air raid that the citizens of Hiroshima had been anticipating for months. This was the beginning of a new world, one with a bomb unlike anything anyone had ever experienced before, something so new and fearsome that at first no one could understand what it was.