Learning from the A-bomb: Atomic flash-burns in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

*This post contains images that some readers may find distressing*HiroshimaPano

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima. Image copyright: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

From 1 January until 26 March 2018, I shifted my research on the history of burns in Britain to explore these injuries in the context of Japan during the Second World War. Although the connections between burns in Britain and the first wartime use of atomic weapons on the other side of the world might not immediately be apparent, there are many links. In the first instance, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are regularly mentioned in discussions about burns, and emergency medicine more generally, after the end of the Second World War. In his book, A New Approach to the Treatment for Burns and Scalds (1950), for example, Leonard Colebrook, Director of the MRC Burns Unit at the Birmingham Accident Hospital, suggests that burns units, including the ‘ideal’ layout described in his text, were appropriate to serving many of the medical needs of communities in the years following the war, especially with the commencement of an arms race between America and the Soviet Union. Two decades later, the impact of the A-bomb was firmly at the centre of discussions concerning the organisation of emergency medical services in the Cold War era. In addition, there are many other aspects of the tragedy that connect with themes at the heart of the ‘Forged by Fire’ project, not least the great psychological impact of burns and the wide variety of medicines and materials that have been used to treat them in the past.


Burning neighbourhoods near the hypocentre in Hiroshima. Image copyright: Division of Radiation Information Registry, University of Hiroshima (DRIRUH)

While it is not surprising that burns are often overlooked in many reports detailing the sufferings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, largely because of the novelty of radiation sickness, it is estimated that approximately 25% of injuries caused by these two atomic weapons were burns. The fireball created by the bomb in Hiroshima, which detonated 590 meters above ground, is described by survivors to have resembled a ‘miniature sun’, generating heat estimated at 300,000 degrees Celsius at its core. On the ground, temperatures reached from 3,000 to 4,000 Celsius, with granite structures exfoliating layers like peeled onion, and clay roof tiles melting and discolouring within 600 metres from the epicentre, or hypocentre.


Melted glass museum displays. Image copyright: Nagasaki Peace Memorial Museum

Fires were generated up to 3,700 metres from the explosion centre, while skin burned within 4,000. Wood and paper sliding doors, straw mats, wooden houses, as well as clothes and other contents all fed the resultant fires. Pressure waves flattened buildings 2.5 kilometres from the hypocentre and, because the blast occurred at 8:15am, when many of Hiroshima’s inhabitants were cooking breakfast, most buildings collapsed onto fires, which merely added to the conflagration. With fire-fighting services largely destroyed, the city quickly became a ‘sea of flames’. Burning for three days and night, fires destroyed 56,111 buildings over 3,280 acres in Hiroshima, 11,574 in Nagasaki, with 1,665 acres reduced to a burnt-out landscape.[1]

Bombed Landscape

Scorched atomic landscapes. Image copyright: DRIRUH

Compared to such fire damage, the impact of radiation was initially invisible. Therefore, descriptions of burned survivors and charred corpses dominated the first photographs taken in the destroyed cities. Many who witnessed the destruction have never forgot these images in all their graphic detail. Scorched survivors were often said to have resembled ‘ghosts’ or ‘zombies’, with skin peeling off their bodies in sheets, groaning in pain and walking with their arms held up before them.


Photos of public memorials of the bombing in Hiroshima. Image Copyright: The author

With so much of the infrastructure in both cities destroyed, it isn’t surprising that treatment was limited. But how were these burns actually treated? Relief centres in Hiroshima and Nagasaki prefectures were immediately set up in designated schools and temples, and occasionally in existing, but damaged, hospitals. There, staff painted an array of ointments onto burns, including iodine ointment, mercurochrome and zinc oxide, before wrapping wounds in bandages. It was not long, however, before medical supplies were exhausted and official damage reports suggest many of the injured received treatment that consisted of little more than cooking oil and a bandage, if they were lucky.


Left image: 22-year old victim Toyoko Kugata being treated at the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital (October 6, 1945). Image copyright: Shunkichi Kikuchi, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Right image: Red Cross nurse applying zinc oxide oil to the burns of an atomic-bomb survivor in Nagasaki, 10 Aug. 1945. Image copyright: Nagasaki Peace Memorial Museum.

Survivor testimonies in local archives tell another story. Those who left relief stations, or whose families removed them, soon after medicines ran out, often tried other burns remedies and treatments. Regularly these involved applying materials topically, most often cooking oil, sliced potatoes, grated cucumbers and even the juice of tomatoes. As one might expect during a hot summer, flies laid their eggs in open wounds and treatment frequently involved removing maggots from infested wounds with chopsticks.


Video Testimonies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki a-bomb survivors. Image copyright: Hiroshima and Nagasaki Peace Memorial Halls

Kazuko Kawada (b.1931) was one of many survivors whose testimony contains reference to a folk remedy. After fleeing Hiroshima with a classmate to Jigozen, a nearby village, where her grandparents lived, Kazuko was treated by her mother, who heard that the plant dokudami (or saururaceae) would heal burns. Thereafter her mother spent each day locating and picking the leaves, roasting them in an earthenware pan, before boiling them in a kettle. Kazuko was administered the leaves as tea for her to drink, instead of water, which was commonly denied to those who were seriously burned. She even used dokudami extract to boil rice gruel for her. Returning to school three months later, Kazuko recalled her mother’s efforts each time she subsequently saw the white flowers of the dokudami plant. Radiation exposure, as in Kazuko’s case, often significantly prolonged the healing process, some wounds taking years to heal. In most cases, scabs would eventually form following treatment and drop off, usually leaving a red rubbery mass of skin, called keloids.


Left image: Dokudami Flower. Image copyright: The author. Right image: Keloid scars on right arm and hand of Hiroshima a-bomb survivor. Image copyright: DRIRUH

Anyone who suffered flash-burns to more than 30% of their bodies usually died of their injuries. Those whose burns were confined to their torsos or limbs, despite any complications, were often reminded by others of their ‘luck’, for survivors with injuries to their faces generally found it much harder to find marriage partners. Nevertheless, most people with burns still reported enduring bigotry, often starting with classmates, the cruellest often calling them names, suggesting their burns smelled or claiming that keloids were contagious. As a result, several burns survivors resorted to wearing long-sleeve shirts, or high necks, even throughout the hottest Japanese summers, to conceal their injuries. Many internalised prevailing prejudice, describing themselves as red demons, and even claiming to be sickened by the sight of their burnt skin. Few escaped without mental scars. Those least fortunate, and nearest the hypocentres in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were of course reduced to charred corpses. Their blackened bodies would, with time, become iconic images, burned into the memories of anyone familiar with what has become one of the defining episodes of the twentieth century, let alone burns history.


Red Devil masks in Hiroshima shop. Image copyright: The Author.

[1] Shogo Nagaoka, Hiroshima under Atomic Bomb Attack, Hiroshima: Peace Memorial Museum, 1955.



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