Witness to Destruction: Photographs and Sound Recordings Documenting the Hiroshima Bombing

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later another bomb was detonated over Nagasaki. Whether the United States needed to use the bomb to ensure a Japanese surrender is a point that is debated to this day. It is not controversial to acknowledge that the actual results of the bomb were horrific. Two cities were flattened and hundreds of thousands of Japanese, mostly civilians, died or suffered terrible injuries.

243-HP-I-31-2

Destruction near the hypocenter of the Hiroshima bombing. The domed building at the center of the photograph was one of the only buildings in the area that, despite severe damage, remained standing. It has been preserved as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. (NAID 243-HP-I-31-2, Photographs Used In The Report Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, 1947 – 1947.)

When U.S. officials decided to drop atomic bombs on Japan, they also planned to study the effects as part of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. The Strategic Bombing Survey was initiated in late 1944 to determine if bombing campaigns in Nazi Germany were effective. For example, how much effect did the bombing of ball-bearing factories have on the outcome of the war? (Not much, as it turned out.) Data from the survey would be used to determine the future of U.S. military development and strategy.

Similarly, every angle of the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was examined by the Strategic Bombing Survey. How did the landscape or placement of hospitals affect the number of casualties? (Hiroshima fared much worse because of the density and terrain of the city.) The resulting report is clinical in its description of damage and ghastly injuries. It’s unsettling to read the “effectiveness” of the bomb measured in the number of dead.

While the report is cold and unfeeling, the Strategic Bombing Survey also recorded the destruction in photographs and film, and with interviews with survivors. In these records we come face-to-face with the true devastation that occurs when one combatant chooses to use an atomic bomb against an enemy.

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Photographs of Hiroshima after the bomb. The original caption for these photos is simply “A-bomb Hiroshima” From series 243-HP: Photographs Used In The Report Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, 1947 – 1947)

Only one of the interviews was conducted in English. Kaleria Palchikoff came to Japan as a baby, when her family fled communist Russia. As a result, she was living just outside Hiroshima when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city. Her first-hand account of the bombing and the days that followed allows the listener a window into the experience of survivors. After the bombing, Palchikoff and her family made their way to a military hospital and she spent some time helping dying patients. Her descriptions of radiation burns, peeling skin, and bleeding eyes are horrifying. Interviewers also asked Palchikoff about the attitudes and beliefs of the Japanese people during the war. Her position as a white “foreigner” means that she makes racially-based generalizations about the Japanese, but she did grow up in the country and lived through the war, so her eyewitness account may have helped U.S. officials understand the impact of the bomb better.

Listen to Palchikoff’s interview below, or read the transcript (Part 1, Part 2).

Palchikoff Interview Part 1

Palchikoff Interview Part 2

Palchikoff Interview Part 3

There is much more about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan at the Truman Library website, including hundreds of pages of original documents. Photographs and more biographical information about Kaleria Palchikoff are available online at Sound Portraits.

Photographs for this post were selected and scanned by Richard Green.

About Audrey Amidon

Audrey works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
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3 Responses to Witness to Destruction: Photographs and Sound Recordings Documenting the Hiroshima Bombing

  1. Jerry Rosenthal says:

    Seventy years ago, on 6 August of 1945, I was in San Jose, California, for 30 days of Rest and Rehabilitation after flying 60 missions over various targets in Europe.

    As July turned into August I was trying to prepare my head to return to combat, this time to Japan. I was slated to go to our old home base at Columbia, South Carolina for retraining and get new airplanes. Our ultimate destination was Okinawa for Operation Downfall. Our first task would be to support the landings on the southern most islands in the first part of Downfall, Operation Olympic, that was due to take place around the first part of November 1945 to be followed by the second part, Coronet – the landings on the Tokyo plain. The Japanese citizenry was being prepared to use spears to try to prevent our landings. I had no expectation to get home except in a box.

    Then only days before my furlough was over, President Truman ordered the dropping of two new atom bombs and he saved my life.

    It really irritates me to read crap that makes the Japs appear as “victims” while they were the ones who committed the atrocities starting with the rape of Nanking. MacArthur’s failure to try Hirohito for the further atrocities of executing POWs makes it appear to some of us that it was he who deserved punishment for his failure to pursue and punish more of the Japanese.

    I know that there will soon be no one of my generation still alive. Couldn’t your please wait until we are all gone?

    G. M. Rosenthal, Veteran of WWII.

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    • M. Rhodes says:

      Sir: Your commanding officers Generals Eisenhower and General MacArthur – just to name two – both believed at the time that the Japanese Empire was licked and that is was completely unnecessary to use the a-bomb on that country. We were reading their diplomatic messages and other codes and knew the Japanese were only holding out because the Russians had not attacked yet. The only reason the bombs were dropped was to impress upon the Soviet Union (and the World) the power the United States held over all others. That was the overreaching goal. But the immediate goal was hopefully to get the Japanese to surrender before Stalin invaded and took over parts of Japan. Gar Alperovitz has written very detailed, extrememly well-researched books on this topic. “Atomic Diplomacy” was the first book he wrote on this.

      It is your politicians and misguided leaders in America today that, in spite of all the evidence, still insist on living with the myth that was justified to commit genocidal slaughter. We are living with that disturbing legacy today. Living a lie.

      M. Rhodes, grandson of veteran of WW II, Korea.

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  2. Very good post. I was trying to prepare my head to return to combat, this time to Japan. I was slated to go to our old home base at Columbia, South Carolina for retraining and get new airplanes.I had no expectation to get home except in a box.
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