Under the mushroom cloud
This week marks the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by the US. Luke Alfred looks back
Every age trails behind it a cluster of images: the Elizabethan ruffled collar, Mobuto Sese Seko and his post-colonial leopard-skin cap, Vietnam's napalm horrors.
The '50s are no exception. The decade calls to mind Elvis Presley, bobby socks and white T-shirts, pedal pushers, large-finned cars as wide as Wisconsin.
Lurking on the edge of such benign associations is a more disturbing image: that of the atom bomb's mushroom cloud, a nuclear family - no surprises there - watchful in the foreground, gazing across a desert at something sinisterly magnificent.
It was Japan that first experienced the sheer destructiveness of atomic warfare when the US dropped two bombs on largely civilian cities in the concluding stages of World War 2. This Saturday marks the 66th anniversary: on August 6 1945, "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima; three days later a second bomb, "Fat Man", fell on Nagasaki.
Although they expected continued bombing - there are stories about Japanese householders destroying their homes to clear space for fire lanes shortly before the bomb on Hiroshima was dropped - nothing could have prepared the Japanese for the awesome destructiveness of the atomic bomb.
Through fate and circumstance some living close to the epicentre of the bomb were saved but most were incinerated. The death toll in the two cities ran into hundreds of thousands, most of the bomb's victims dying in the chaotic aftermath, from burns, internal bleeding, lack of available medicines or appropriate medical care and, finally, from extreme thirst. Some, after appearing to have escaped the worst, simply expired.
The suffering was widespread and terrible, played out against centuries of Japanese reserve. John Hersey, in his book, Hiroshima , tells of a German priest, a Father Kleinsorge, who was living in Hiroshima at the time, offering water to those "whose faces had been almost blotted out by flesh burns. They took their share and then raised themselves a little and bowed to him, in thanks."
As often happens in times of war, there was a strange poetry in this tapestry of death. "Soon Mr Tanimoto found a good-sized pleasure punt drawn up on the bank," writes Hersey, whose interviews with six survivors of the tragedy were first published in The New Yorker, the magazine's editors devoting the entire issue on the first anniversary of the bombing to it. "But in and around it was an awful tableaux of five men, nearly naked, badly burned, who must have expired more or less all at once, for they were in attitudes which suggested that they had been working together to push the boat down into the river. Mr Tanimoto lifted them away from the boat, and as he did so, he experienced such horror at disturbing the dead, preventing them, he momentarily felt, from launching their craft and going about their ghostly way, that he said out loud, 'Please forgive me for taking this boat ...'"
Strange things happen to the human body when exposed to an atomic bomb. People wearing patterned dresses or shirts were partly protected by the lighter shades, which reflected some of the light and intense heat of the blast, while darker shades and colours were burnt into the skin. The bomb, according to Hersey, also left prints of the shadow cast by the intensity of its blast. There was a shadow, for instance, thrown onto the roof of the Hiroshima Chamber of Commerce building by its rectangular tower. There were shadows cast on several tombstones at the Gokoku shrine, close to the centre of the blast, and others scattered across the city.
One possibly apocryphal story, which grew into a post-Hiroshima legend, told of a painter who had been frozen "in a kind of bas-relief on the stone facade of a bank building on which he was at work, in the act of dipping his brush into his paint can".
As bad, perhaps, as the physical effects and aftereffects of the bomb were the lingering doubts about what exactly had happened. The Japanese knew, of course, that they had been bombed, but at first thoughts were of a sophisticated cluster-bomb, dubbed a "Molotov flower basket".
Later, as the survivors were coming to terms with what remained of their lives and their city, some believed they had been poisoned - which, in a sense, they had. Soon after the bomb fell, rumours started circulating that they had been the victims of an unheard-of atom-splitting bomb. But what to make of this information? How did it help one to survive?
Their existential dread wasn't helped by the Japanese government. It was only after the crew of the Lucky Dragon 5 - a tuna fishing boat contaminated by radioactive fallout from a US H-bomb explosion near Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1954 - started displaying symptoms of radiation sickness, that widespread outrage began to percolate through Japanese society.
It took a further three years for the Japanese government to officially recognise Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims' claims to compensation. They were known in Japan simply as hibakusha, or "explosion affected persons".
For the hibakusha, life was frequently a trial, certainly in the years immediately following the blast. The Japanese medical establishment was not prepared for such a disaster and because of its comparative unusualness didn't really know how to deal with radiation sickness when cases were brought into hospital.
Hiroshima was ruined. Plastic surgery techniques in Japan were primitive. Many hibakusha suffered from keloid scars, horribly disfiguring, rubbery scars that were often itchy; many hibakusha were to eventually develop leukaemia. In 1955, through the well-meaning initiatives of intellectuals and journalists in the US, and Japanese survivors, 25 women who had been disfigured by the bombings were flown to New York where they underwent reconstructive surgery while staying with US host families. They were known as the Hiroshima Maidens.
Slowly life began to change in Japanese society. A fractious peace movement was formed. Japan began to interact with its former enemies. The victims' status within society improved and they were able to get jobs. Hideous as they were, they were photographed.
One such photograph, by Japanese photographer Ken Domon, a man who devoted much of his professional life to documenting the challenges confronted by the hibakusha, shows a family of three facing the camera. On the left is the father, his face and lips grotesque with burns; on the extreme right is the mother, unaffected by scarring; in-between them is their child, innocent, her complexion clear and fine. What gives the photograph - titled Mr and Mrs Kotani: Two who have suffered from the bomb. 1957 - its extraordinary power is that the father is laughing. He is laughing with his entire being. It is the laughter of a man who is indulging in the simple joy of being alive.