HIROSHIMA, Japan -- They were young and strong and most of all lucky -- if that is the correct term to describe people who saw their families die. Who saw a world end in fire, who wished they were dead themselves. They are the survivors, the people who 50 years ago experienced the atomic bombings near ground zero.
Nothing has ever matched the speed of that destruction. At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, the center of Hiroshima became mostly ash, and before that minute had passed more than 130,000 people were injured so badly by radiation or blast that they were dead or would die within four months.
On Aug. 9 at 11:02 a.m., it was Nagasaki's turn. Another 70,000 people would die. The debates about whether and how the United States should have used the bombs, nicknamed Little Boy and Fat Man, were for a future that just then seemed hard to imagine.
There was a war, destruction and unusual horrors -- that is what people knew. For weeks, even years, the survivors did not know what had hit them. All they knew was what was gone.
Suzuko Numata was 21, living in Hiroshima. The war had already turned against Japan, but in August 1945 little news circulated at home about the country's defeats.
Not that there weren't hints. Rice had been replaced at mealtimes by a paste of soybeans. Radishes and yams -- the delicacies of earlier years -- had disappeared. But the bad news was discounted as darkness before dawn.
"We were taught we would never lose," Ms. Numata says, "and we never doubted it."
She worked at the city's communications center. It housed the central post office and the telephone exchange.
Her father worked there, too, and every workday began with her washing desktops. Within a city constructed mostly of wood, the communications center was a rarity, a structure made of reinforced concrete. It had sturdiness that might withstand a bomb blast.
And bombings were expected. Hiroshima was an important army center, and the air raid sirens wailed several times a day to warn of the approach of U.S. aircraft. But the planes always chose other targets.
The city's residents considered themselves lucky: the saturation bombings that had set Tokyo and Yokohama alight had never arrived.
A few minutes after midnight Aug. 6, the sirens sounded again. Ms. Numata and her family stayed in a shelter until the all-clear signal, at 2:10 a.m. It was another night that offered little rest.
As Ms. Numata was leaving the shelter, the sky still dark, the B-29 bomber nicknamed Enola Gay was lifting off from Tinian Island carrying a single bomb. Little Boy -- a long, tapered cylinder with tail fins and a uranium core -- was on its way.
Ms. Numata heard the sirens again in the morning. She thought about staying in a shelter but decided in favor of heading to work. The all-clear came at 7:31 a.m.
The Enola Gay and its two escort planes had been detected by radar, but the Japanese air force decided to husband its limited strength. So the sirens did not sound again.
A beautiful flash
Ms. Numata was at the communications building at 8:15, rinsing towels. She recalls being conscious of a beautifully colored flash -- an unnatural prism of red, yellow, orange, green, blue. Then of a wind. Then of darkness. Then of a terrible pressure from the air.
She was told later that she had cried for help. Some men pulled her from debris just ahead of a rolling fire, the flames moving as fast as ocean waves. She heard her father shouting her name. He saw what she could no longer sense: her left foot was almost severed at the ankle.
The miracle was the presence of a doctor, and to save her he amputated the foot. Despite the lack of anesthetic, she felt nothing. She lay on the ground. When her senses returned, she could hear pleas for water and cries of agony. She could see people so badly burned they ceased to appear human.
For three days she lay there, and a black drizzle of fallout rained on her and Hiroshima. Another passing doctor saw her leg, saw that an infection was spreading. She remembers that someone held a candle to light the doctor's work. This time the amputation was above the knee and men had to hold her down.
An infirmary of sorts was established in the remains of the communications building. So unknown, so dark was this world that no one could understand the sufferings or promise that they would end.
The 100 or so people in the concrete rubble saw their gums
bleed and their hair fall out and felt skin become brittle, as if in three days they had aged 30 years.
No one knew that the affliction was from radiation.
The building became less of an infirmary, more of a morgue. Bodies were piled on top of bodies. Maggots infested the wounds of the living. Of the people there, perhaps 90 died. Ms. Numata was moved from the wreckage to hospitals. It would be many operations and two years before she returned home.
She would become a teacher. Within a few years, marriage seemed a possibility. "It was discussed, but the man's parents opposed it," she says.
No parent wanted a child to marry a bomb victim, a "hibakusha"; there was fear of radiation and the effects it might have on grandchildren yet to be born.
"I had lost a leg -- there must have been many other women around who were healthy," she says.
Twice a year, she goes for a medical exam, paid for by the Japanese government. It is a fringe benefit for the hibakusha. Her left leg has again been operated on, and there are problems with the stump and with her joints and with her blood -- illnesses blamed on the radiation.
The test results are always the same, 50 years after the bombing. The doctors say: "To be watched."
Flight with horse-drawn cart
In Nagasaki, Yusu Ebihara had already loaded a horse-drawn cart with her possessions. People had heard about the destruction and special misery in Hiroshima and the rumor of new, powerful bombs. Ms. Ebihara hoped the countryside would be safer than the city, an important port. So the horse began plodding out of Nagasaki a little after 7 a.m. on Aug. 9.
Ms. Ebihara planned to make another trip to gather up her two children. Her husband was on his way to work at city hall.
At 11:02 a.m., she was on the outskirts of the city. She saw a bright blue flash and felt and then heard the blast. From where she stood, the explosion of Fat Man was like a windstorm, gust after gust. The horse bolted, and the contents of the cart landed in a ditch.
Ms. Ebihara thought the worst had passed.
She headed back toward town for the children. The only people she saw were coming the other way. First she saw people with makeshift canes, then people who were bleeding. Houses were twisted; closer to where the bomb had exploded, they were splinters, and the ground a mass of red embers.
"I asked a man with a bleeding head what happened to Shiroyama," she says, thinking of the neighborhood where she lived. "He said, 'It doesn't exist,' and he was right."
She spent the night walking through wreckage. At dawn she looked more closely at the dead. Their clothes were missing, sometimes their features. Men and women had been melted into indistinguishable sameness. She says through tears, "Those who were dead were better off than the badly hurt."
Ms. Ebihara's husband had survived. Somehow they found each other -- the details are lost to her. Garbage men were on the streets, their carts filled with what appeared to be charred timbers. They were corpses burned to a black crispness.
The injured were still on the street, begging for water, cries more wrenching than an infant's for milk. A passer-by might see a mother use chopsticks to remove maggots from the burns of a child. People fanned themselves for relief from the heat of the fires around them.
The Ebiharas found the corpses of their children. Police happened by but said they had no help to offer and instructed the couple to cremate the bodies.
"It took four hours for the boy, three for the girl," Ms. Ebihara says. "The experience can't be imagined. We were burning our own children."
She is 95.
She buried the ashes of her children and decades later buried her husband. Her health is good, she says -- she has diabetes and pains in her knees, but those ailments are attributed to age, not to the bomb.
"It was a dream, it was just a bad dream that happened long ago," she says, with barely a word of judgment against the United States.
"Right after the war, I hated it, and so did everyone else. As times pass, memories and feelings fade away. It was war. Nothing could be done."
Studies had to wait
In ordinary times, Chisako Takeoka, 17, would have still been a student. But studies were being ignored in Hiroshima to make more people available for work.
At 4 a.m. on Aug. 6, she finished her shift in a factory on the Honkawa River, a can factory converted to turning out small boats to be used for kamikaze missions against the approaching U.S. fleet. Then she walked home. She went to sleep. What she remembers next is stepping outside into an intense flash.
Perhaps she was knocked unconscious there or stumbled or became disoriented by the blast, but she found herself in a field behind her house. Above was a swirling gray cloud, stranger than any she had ever seen, because inside the cloud was an intensely bright light.
She went back into the house and found everything scattered, as if from a windstorm. When she returned outside, the cloud had grown larger.
Streams of people were coming toward her. Some appeared to have two hands on each arm -- a red, fleshy appendage with fingers, and a second, looser attachment that was the skin. The sky was still both dark and unnaturally bright. Ms. Takeoka wondered about her mother, a nurse at a military hospital. The people coming toward her screamed that they were burning.
Ms. Takeoka took some of them into her home and treated them with iodine and bandages. When those supplies were gone, she and neighbors who came to help applied food oil to the burns. The treatment was irrelevant; within a few hours most of the people were dead.
She spent the night at home, among the dead and the barely alive.
On Aug. 7, she left before dawn in search of her mother. Unknowingly, she walked closer to the center of the damage -- down the slight hill where she lived onto the flat alluvial plain that formed the center of the city.
The factory where she worked had disappeared. The river was choked with swollen bodies. People desperate for water jumped into the river, drank and then died.
There was only rubble where her mother's hospital had been. Some men standing there told her that everyone was dead -- crushed in the blast or already thrown into the river. Ms. Takeoka opened the mouths of 40 corpses to see if any had her mother's distinctive teeth. The men told her to go home, since everyone feared more raids.
In her slow, stumbling walk she attempted to find the house of an aunt. She found her aunt as a corpse sitting at a table in the kitchen of a house that had otherwise disappeared.
Ms. Takeoka resumed walking until an air raid siren began to wail. She crawled inside a water tank.
"There was a young woman and a child," she says. "From the waist down, the mother was just ashes." The child, too, was dead.
"That's when I came to my senses and began to cry. That is when I felt pain and when I decided to live."
Shock before suffering
Many victims speak of a similar initial numbness, the protective insulation of shock. Everything seemed distant, then would become real and almost unbearable. That is when the living began to suffer.
She began to feel nauseated after a few days, and red spots appeared on her body, signs of radiation sickness.
As part of the search for her mother, Ms. Takeoka came to an elementary school pressed into service as a shelter. She inadvertently kicked a small decorative box that was on the floor. She recognized the box as her mother's, and she screamed.
Then came a muted sound from something wrapped in bandages inside the school, a shape lying across two tables pushed together. The sound came from her mother, bandaged and burned beyond full repair.
Ms. Takeoka searched for medical help for days. In the end, it was a veterinarian who without any anesthetic removed one of her mother's damaged eyes.
Her mother recovered from the surgery but not from the bombing. The mother's next 22 years were spent in fear of being indoors and in constant pain, until death.
Bomb was not finished
Ms. Takeoka married in 1948. Her first child was 18 days old when red spots appeared on his body, as they had once appeared on hers.
The bomb's power was not fully expended.
"He died that day," she says. "He had the A-bomb disease."
A half-dozen times a year she speaks about her experiences to school groups or other audiences. The bombing might seem to them like a nightmare but no worse than that -- something from which one awakes and then knows to be over -- but for her the bombing has lasted, so far, 50 years.
"War is a fight to win -- doing anything to win. But I just can't accept the idea of creating and using an atomic bomb."