Hiroshima 1945: a day in August that changed the world

14-08-2003 Article, Le Temps

Original title: "Regard sur Hiroshima, un mois après la bombe" – Press article by Richard Werly published in "Le Temps" (Switzerland) on 14 August 2003; how the ICRC, focussed on the fate of prisoners, came to learn about the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima, and the action it took.


Since Japan’s entry into World War II the fate of Allied prisoners had been a major source of concern for the ICRC. The oriental empire had not ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention protecting POWs, and its martial tradition held that to be captured alive was to bring shame on oneself and one’s family. As there were thought to be tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of prisoners – military and civilian – held in places across occupied Asia, there was cause for disquiet; the ICRC had been allowed to visit very few camps.

Thus it was that when the ICRC’s new head of delegation in Japan, Dr. Marcel Junod, arrived in the region in the summer of 1945, his primary objective was to obtain increased access to the POWs, and in particular the senior commanders who had been seized during the Japanese victories throughout the Far East. The Japanese authorities had agreed that he could start in the occupied Chinese province of Manchuria, through which Junod traveled by train on his journey from Geneva.


Hiroshima, 7 August, 1945: A weapon more terrifying than any seen before - many who survived the initial blast suffered an agonizing death.
© ICRC / ref. hist-00261-35.jpg

On 6 August, after doggedly insisting, Junod achieved a minor breakthrough: the local Japanese commander in Seihan granted him permission not only to visit the hidden camp where senior Allied officers were held but to speak with one of them - General Wainwright, commander of the defeated American army at Corregidor in the Philippines. It was little more than a brief contact but Junod hoped that it was a step in the right direction. 

There was no way for Junod – or anyone else in Manchuria that day – to know that 1,500 kms away, the Japanese city of Hiroshima had been attacked with appalling consequences: around 100,000 killed outright, a similar number horribly injured and much of the city obliterated. (The first foreign journalist to reach the scene, Wilfred Burchett, got there on 3 September.)
Even had he heard of the bombing, its significance might not have been immediately clear – many Japanese cities had come under devastating air attack with incendiary bombs, as the US sought to force the enemy to surrender unconditionally. The likely human cost of a full-blown military invasion was judged by Washington to be unacceptably high, and the new top secret bomb had been tested in New Mexico and declared ready for use…


Hiroshima, Naka-ku. Devastation following the explosion of the atomic bomb.
© ICRC / S. Nakata/ hist-00260-08

After arriving in Tokyo on 9 August – the day the second atomic bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki – Junod sensed the approaching climax to the war. He dispatched the members of his small team to different parts of the country, to get into as many POW camps as possible and prepare to assist in their release.  
What Dr Junod saw at the Red Cross hospital in Hiroshima 
“The patients who still have any strength huddle up in the corners. Others lie on the ground, dying.  
  There are 84 patients in this hospital, with 10 nurses and around 20 students to help them. There is no water, no lavatories, no kitchen.  
  Thousands of flies cover the wounds and burns; everything is incredibly filthy.  
  The patients need transfusions; they are bleeding, because of the radioactivity. But there are no blood donors, no treatment…”    

On 30 August his deputy, Fritz Bilfinger, was in the area and visited the city. His report to Junod, dramatize d further by its obligatory telegraphic style, made chilling reading: “ Conditions appalling - city wiped out eighty per cent - all hospitals destroyed or seriously damaged - inspected two emergency hospitals - conditions beyond description. Effects of bomb mysteriously serious - many victims apparently recovering suddenly suffer fatal relapse due to decomposition white bloodcells… now dying in great numbers.. .” [ Bilfinger's telegram (original) pdf format (67 kb) ] Junod immediately contacted the American command and asked for emergency medical supplies, which he helped to distribute when he visited the stricken city a few days later – the first foreign doctor to set foot there after the catastrophe. He noted: “ The city centre had been flattened like the palm of a hand. Nothing left. It was horrific. ” 
A hospital in Hiroshima.  

A hospital in Hiroshima.
© ICRC / hist-02959-31

Later he was to write: “ I have no doubt about it: the world is today confronted with a choice – to continue to exist, or to be annihilated if that bomb is used again…

Article reproduced with kind permission of Le Temps; no reproduction in any form without the prior permission of Le Temps. The article’s editorial content and style are those of Le Temps and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ICRC, which has provided the summary as an informative guide to the article.  

 Read the complete article in French.