Photos of the World War II Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945

The bombs that exploded in the air above the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first and last use of atomic weapons in human history.
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Photos of the World War II Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 Newsweek

In the months leading up to August 6, 1945, rumors spread through the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Although the city was home to a number of military headquarters, arms manufacturers and strategic shipping routes, it had been largely undamaged by the ferocious Allied bombing campaigns that hit other cities. People wondered why, and there was an eerie feeling of calm before the storm.

This storm broke on August 6, at 8:15 on a clear summer morning. A blinding flash, like a camera bulb going off, filled the city, followed by a wave of intense heat. Shortly afterward, a deep boom blasted apart walls and ignited firestorms.

In that instant, almost 70 percent of Hiroshima was destroyed, and 30 percent of the population was killed. Beyond the devastated city, the world also changed irrevocably. The bomb that exploded in the air above the city, dropped by an American bomber, was the first ever use of an atomic weapon in human history.

It wouldn't be the last. Three days later the city of Nagasaki, which was targeted for its large strategic seaport, caught 11lb of plutonium from another American bomber plane. The bomb exploded over the city's industrial valley, completely destroying everything in a half-mile radius and killing at least 40,000 people.

These two bombs decided the fate of the war. Japan had previously begun to negotiate an end to the war, although it had chosen to reject an ultimatum that it should unconditionally surrender, or face "prompt and utter destruction" the previous month.

Six days after the attack on Nagasaki, they changed their minds, announcing a surrender to Allied forces and effectively ending World War II.

But the effects of the bomb continued to reverberate for years to come. The people near the bomb sites continued to suffer repercussions from plutonium exposure, including cancer and birth defects.

The introduction of nuclear warfare into the world triggered the Cold War arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, leaving generations terrified that a bomb would once again be dropped—although to this day, it hasn't happened again.

Although it occurred 73 years ago, the ethics surrounding the twin bombings in Japan remain a hotly debated subject, raising questions over the use of nuclear force. A 2005 poll from Gallup found that 61 percent of Americans believed the nuclear bomb's development was a "bad thing," compared to just 17 percent of people in 1945.

However you feel about the events in Japan, it's important to remember this historically significant moment. Archive photos from the time show the preparations, as well as the utter devastation wreaked on the two affected cities. These are the most powerful images from the atomic bombings.

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Members of the ground crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, pose for a photo with the aircraft at their base on Tinian in the Mariana Islands. The plane was named after the mother of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr., seen in the center of this group. U.S. Air Force/Reuters