Picturing Armageddon #1

“In that terrible flash 10,000 miles away, men here have seen not only the fate of Japan, but have glimpsed the future of America”. – ‘Dawn of a New Atomic Era’, James Reston, New York Times, 12 August 1945.

Atomic_cloud_over_HiroshimaWe understand many of the key moments of 20th Century history through the photographic record of those events. There is a relative sparsity of images of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In a way this tells us something of the hidden history of the event, which as I’ve written elsewhere, sees the atomic bombings as the beginning of the cold war rather than the end of the second world war.

There are two perspectives of Hiroshima. They each illustrate and reinforce either an heroic or a tragic narrative. Heroic as seen by the victors above and tragic by the victims below the mushroom cloud.

For their part the Americans took three sorts of photograph on 6 August 1945. Firstly, the historical record of the first military use of an atomic weapon, what U.S. President Harry Truman described as “…the greatest thing in history!” Enola Gay the aircraft that dropped the bomb, had to perform a manoeuvre immediately after releasing the weapon to escape the blast. (Another aircraft would therefore film the explosion.)

bob_caron However just before the mission, the squadron’s photography officer, Lieutenant Jerome Ossip, asked Enola Gay’s tail gunner Technical Sergeant ‘Bob’ Caron to take a handheld Fairchild K-20 still camera. Caron took a photograph of the mushroom cloud. After the mission, Ossip developed photos from all the aircraft, but found that the fixed cameras failed to record anything. Film from another handheld was mishandled whilst it was being developed, so Caron’s photograph is the only official still image of the explosion. The following day it was used on propaganda leaflets which were dropped by aircraft all over Japan.

There is movie footage, filmed with a handheld 16mm camera from The Great Artiste (one of two aircraft that flew over the target with the Enola Gay), the same aircraft also dropped scientific equipment to measure the effects of the explosion. One of the crew members was physicist Bernard Waldman who was to operate a special high-speed Fastax movie camera with six seconds of film in order to record the blast. Unfortunately, he forgot to open the camera shutter so no film was exposed.

Secondly, Reconnaissance photographs taken later to gauge the destruction.

Before and after photographs

And thirdly, souvenir snapshots taken by crew members including Second Lieutenant Russell Gackenback, the Navigator of Necessary Evil, who took two still photographs of the cloud about one minute after detonation using his own Agfa 620 camera.

Necessary evil Russell Gackenback

The movie footage is in colour, but shaky and of poor quality. It is does not convey the magnitude of what had been done. The written records of the crew (who were aware they were writing for posterity) do more to express the explosion’s “terrible beauty”. This lack of a powerful visual record goes a long way to explaining why few people have a mental picture of the explosion and instead recall the footage of the Trinity test explosion which took place a month earlier in New Mexico.
trinity fastax imagesHere photography was primarily scientific in purpose. Some 50 different cameras took still and moving images. Special ‘Fastax’ cameras taking 10,000 frames per second recorded the minute details of the explosion. Spectrograph cameras recorded the wavelengths of light emitted by the explosion, and pinhole cameras recorded gamma rays. A rotating drum spectrograph at 10,000-yards from Ground Zero recorded the spectrum over the first hundredth of a second. Another, slow recording one would track the fireball. Cameras protected by steel and lead glass were placed in bunkers only 800 yards from the explosion and retrieved using a lead-lined tank.

Despite being the greatest secret of the war some of the invited observers brought their own cameras and including environmental physicist Jack Aeby who took the only known well exposed colour photograph of the explosion using a 35mm Perfex 44.


enola-gay-crewRobert Oppenheimer the leader of the scientists who developed the bomb describing the explosion famously quoted Hindu scripture, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Henry Linschitz a fellow physicist said less poetically but more honestly, “My God, we’re going to drop that on a city?” None of the airmen who would drop the bomb were present at the test. The day before they flew they were to be shown the top secret footage of the test explosion, but the projector didn’t work, so it was described to them.

The description did not do it justice.


3 thoughts on “Picturing Armageddon #1

    1. “Dr. Einstein, why is it that when the mind of man has stretched so far as to discover the structure of the atom we have been unable to devise the political means to keep the atom from destroying us?”

      Albert Einstein: “That is simple, my friend. It is because politics is more difficult than physics”.

      (Einstein’s answer to a conferee at a meeting at Princeton, N.J. (Jan 1946), as recalled by Greenville Clark in ‘Letters to the Times’, in New York Times, 22 April 1955)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s