Junko’s Story: Surviving Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb

Junko’s Story

Surviving Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb

I am Junko Morimoto.

I now live in Sydney, but I was born and brought up in Hiroshima.

When the bomb exploded on the morning of August 6 1945, I was a 13-year-old schoolgirl.

I lived 1.7 kilometres away from where the bomb fell.

Now aged 83, Junko Morimoto remembers:

I was meant to go to school that day but I had a stomach bug. My family said I should stay home because the teachers would only make me do war work anyway.

It was just before 8:15am, and my sister and I were in my bedroom talking. My father had gone out to get a haircut and he still wasn’t back. My mother had trouble with her lungs, so she’d gone away to an island to convalesce.

My brother was part of the student mobilisation and worked at Japan Steel, manufacturing weapons. He was just home from his shift and sitting by the window, playing his guitar. It was summer and warm, so he wasn’t wearing a shirt. My eldest sister was also back from work and having a late breakfast of rice, chopsticks in hand.

That’s when we heard the loud aircraft noise.

At that time, we were very aware of the noises different aircraft made. I stood up and said it could be a B-29.

We heard the noise fade. Suddenly there was a moment of blinding light with intense heat.

I couldn’t see anything. There was a strange reverberation, a noise that’s impossible to describe, followed by a bang.

Then the house, the ceiling, everything collapsed. We were buried and in complete darkness.

That’s when I thought “I’m going to die”. I repeated to myself, “I’m going to die, I’m going to die”.

The third time I said it, I must have lost consciousness.

Fused cups

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Found 1km from ground zero.

These cups belonged to the Nakata family. When the bomb dropped, thirty six-year old Ichiji Nakata was at home shaving. His wife, Fumiko and their two children had just stepped out of a bomb shelter. Ichiji and the children were killed instantly and Fumiko suffered severe injuries. She lived another few weeks until August 30, 1945. Days after the bombing, Fumiko and Ishiji’s mother found the cups fused together in the ruins of their home.

Donated to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum by Yukio Nakata.

“Little Boy” Atomic
Bomb Detonation

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At seventeen seconds after 8:15 a.m. on August 6 1945, the US B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the “ultimate weapon”, the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima.

The bomb, “Little Boy” had been developed by a group of international scientists at Los Alamos in the US. American President Harry Truman told the world that this was a response to Japan’s failure to agree to an unconditional surrender in the Second World War.

The bomb weighed about 4,400kg and was as powerful as 16 kilotonnes of TNT. President Truman said it was 2,000 times more powerful than the largest bomb used to date. Its content was highly-enriched uranium-235 (U-235), and it worked much like a gun: a small explosive sent a uranium bullet down a 1.9m barrel into a uranium core, causing nuclear fission.

The Hiroshima bomb was intentionally set to detonate well above its target to spread its radioactivity.

It exploded around 580m above Shima Hospital (Ground Zero) in central Hiroshima. At the moment of detonation, a mushroom cloud more than 12,000m high billowed up over the city. The bomb created a fireball 280m in diameter. The temperature at the centre of the fireball was as hot as the surface of the sun.

No one knew precisely the effect it would have on its human targets.

Little Boy
Filling weight64kg
Blast yield15 kilotons of TNT

When I came to again, I was covered by debris. All I could see was a broken ceiling and through it, the grey sky. I assumed a bomb had fallen directly on our house.

In my mind, I heard tens of thousands of people in Hiroshima screaming. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s what I remember.

My sister and I were clinging to each other. We tried to crawl out.

To make sure we were all right, we siblings were calling to each other: “Junko-chan!” “Tei-chan!” “Aki-chan!” “Where are you? We’re here.”

I found my eldest sister in what was left of the dining room. She was covered in blood.

I wondered why there was all that blood over her. She was hurt, and one of her teeth was missing.

The shock had sent one of the chopsticks she was holding through her cheek, poking out the tooth.

Our brother was in another room. The window behind him had shattered. When the window broke with a bang, his back was pierced by splinters of shattered glass.

We were all in a panic. To get out into the yard, we were treading on the shattered glass barefooted. I heard my brother cry my name “Junko!” “Sister!” “Are you all right?”

That’s when we saw everything had been flattened. There was nothing left.

Across the street was a neighbour’s farm, where they grew vegetables. There had been a big cherry tree—that was now smashed. The farm had completely disappeared.

We could see Hiroshima on the horizon, which seemed to be on fire. Everywhere to the horizon were fires.

We were all worried about father. Then we saw him wheeling his bike through all the debris under the railway. His face was strange – a deep glowing red.

We realised later he’d been burnt. His face, hands, any part of him that was exposed was burnt, and so were the black parts of his clothes.

Father said we had to get away from the house. Even though we had no shoes, we had to flee.

We needed to get to the river.

Wall clock

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Found 2.9km from ground zero.

This clock stopped at the moment of the atomic bombing. It belonged to Kiyoshi Shima, who was at home with his wife and child. The entire family was trapped under their collapsed house. Kiyoshi managed to crawl out and looked on helplessly as his wife and child burnt to death in the fire after the blast. Hearing from Kiyoshi, Kiyoshi’s colleagues rushed out to try to save the family, but were stopped by the intense flames. Kiyoshi gave the clock to his friend Yoshida, who had helped him.

Donated to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum by Kuwami Yoshia.

Casualties of the Atomic
Bomb in Hiroshima

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The atomic bomb exploded over an area of Hiroshima, which was crowded with wood-frame houses and shops and large public buildings.

In the space of seconds, it had flattened almost every building within a 2km radius, killing 60,000-80,000 people and leaving the same number injured. Exact casualty and population numbers cannot be known, but the U.S.-Japanese Radiation Effects Research Foundation gives a range of 90,000 to 166,000 deaths within the first four months.

This was destruction on an unprecedented scale. It was worsened by the outbreak of numerous small fires around the city that soon became a massive firestorm. The firestorm enveloped Hiroshima and lasted three days, trapping and killing many survivors of the initial blast. Especially vulnerable were people who couldn’t escape in the first minutes after the attack.

The greatest single factor influencing the occurrence of casualties was distance from the centre of the explosion. Over 90% of people within 500 metres died. Infrared rays from the fireball raised surface temperatures in this area to 3,000-4,000°C. Those within 1.2 km who had no shielding were fatally burned; those closest were instantly killed and incinerated. These rays also caused painful burns to human skin as far away as 3.5km. Dark and patterned clothing was permanently branded onto people’s skin.

Others were killed or seriously injured by the impact of the blast - a wall of scorching air that moved faster than the speed of sound. Five hundred metres from ground zero, the pressure was extreme, pressing down with the force of 19 tonnes per square metre. Thousands were crushed or buried under collapsing buildings. Window glass shattered by the blast flew through the air at tremendous speeds, cutting people in half, blinding them or penetrating deeply into their bodies.

Adding to the difficulties, over 90% of doctors and 93% of nurses in Hiroshima were killed or injured since they had been working in the downtown area when the bomb dropped. Eighteen emergency hospitals and 32 first-aid clinics were destroyed. Medical supplies quickly ran out.

0 - 1km1 - 2.5km2.5 - 5.0kmTotal
  • Fire and blast damage
  • Blast damage only

Because there was no clear path left, we followed the railway line.

We walked on the wooden sleepers. They were smouldering. There was smoke coming from under our bare feet but we kept thinking we had to get to the river. We’d be all right if we got to the river.

I myself wasn’t burnt, but my hair was so stiff with dust and all the other things in the air that it stuck out. I had all this blood on me, but I wasn’t bleeding. It was my sister’s – although she’d been in the kitchen at the time, her blood spurted out so hard it reached me in the bedroom.

I don’t know how far we walked along the main rail line, maybe 500 metres, until we came to the river. What we saw there was unbelievably horrible. Like a scene from hell.

Crowds of people were slowly making their way from the city to the river, all badly burned. There was a soldier there, I don’t know how old. Part of his uniform had been burned away. His back was all burned and when he took his cap off, his hair was still there, but all the rest of his face was burned.

As the injured people filed by, the soldier smeared oil on their burns. It must have been painful, and some of them cried out, but most of them were stunned and as silent as ghosts.

Some were naked, their clothes burnt off them. They walked along with their arms raised and something hanging off them that looked like nylon stockings. It was their burnt flesh peeling away. They were disintegrating.

The skin on some people was dark red, obviously burned and painful. No-one spoke. It was dreadful. Somehow we kept walking.

Many of the victims were desperate for water. When they saw the river, they knelt down and drank even though people told them: “If you drink from that, you will die.” And they did; every one.

The river was wide there. It flowed through the middle of Hiroshima and so much was floating in it.

I saw corpses floating in the river.

I saw a dead horse.

The worst was to come.

Metal helmet

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Excavated approximately 300m from ground zero.

This helmet was uncovered in Hiroshima’s Moto-machi area, which was military property in August 1945. After the bombing, the corpses of soldiers and army horses were found scattered in the rubble together with smashed metal helmets, bent swords, charred rifles and similar items. The helmet was unearthed during the construction of Hiroshima’s present-day bus centre in 1973.

Donated to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum by Nakasada Tanaka.

Increased Risk of Cancer Associated
with Radiation Exposure Amongst
Hiroshima Survivors

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Hiroshima’s inhabitants came into contact with nuclear radiation in several ways: those close to the centre of the explosion received lethal doses for more than a minute after the atomic bomb detonated. Others were contaminated by the high levels of radioactivity that stayed in the soil and environment for an extended time after. This radioactive fallout rose high in the air with the fireball and was widely scattered across the city. It reached the ground in a heavy rainfall of black soot and dust to the northwest. This was the “black rain” — dark, potentially radioactive water with an oily sheen. Very soon, it had entered the food and water supplies.

People exposed to large doses of radiation developed radiation sickness — “atomic bomb disease”. They suffered from fever, vomiting and skin spots, lost their hair, bled heavily and their white blood cell count plunged. They usually died within 10 days.

However, most terrifying perhaps were the atomic radiation’s delayed effects. Most survivors appeared to be in superficially good health at the end of 1945. But soon after, serious medical concerns began to surface. The increase in cancer incidence was first noted in the late 1940s, and in the next decade, tumour registries were started to collect data on cancer risks caused by atomic radiation exposure.

One of the most deadly effects was leukaemia, disproportionately affecting children. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) has found that nearly half of leukaemia deaths among survivors between 1950 and 2000 were linked to atomic radiation exposure. The risk of other cancers — thyroid, breast, lung, colon, etc. — has been, and still is, significantly higher among those exposed to the radiation. RERF estimates that by 2000, there were 1,900 cases of cancer associated with atomic radiation exposure among all Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.

CancerTotal CasesExcess Cases
Female Breast527147
Leukaemia *20494
* Leukaemia numbers reflect total cases from 1950 to 2000. Other cancers refer to cases from 1958 to 1998.

There was a huge file of people heading away from the city to the north, along the river. We went with them.

One was a mother, carrying a baby on her back. But the baby was obviously dead. Its head was lolling— its mouth open.

As we walked, I saw a little girl of three or so screaming for her mother, who was just lying there. She was crying as loud as she could “Mummy!” But the woman was bleeding heavily and probably dead. I knew this was a tragic sight, but my mind was blank. I didn’t stop to help her.

My family too was silent, because they didn’t know what to think. Everyone was too stunned and uncomprehending of what had happened.

We just kept slowly walking.

I don’t know how long we walked. The sky was always dark after the bomb fell, and we never knew, what time it was. Eventually we came to the countryside where there was nothing but rice paddies. The tops of the plants had been burnt and blasted flat.

Then there was a loud booming noise.

We thought it might be another plane with another bomb, so we all threw ourselves face down.

But it started raining and we realised the noise we’d heard was probably thunder.

The thunder was extraordinarily noisy, the rain heavy.

It stained my white gym top black.

We had no idea at the time what this could be.

We didn’t know about the radiation.

Slip stained by
black rain

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Found 2.4km from the ground zero.

This slip belonged to 37 year-old Aiko Sato, who was at home breastfeeding her baby when the bomb hit. As a result of the blast, she suffered severe wounds from shattered glass and was trapped under a chest of drawers. Aiko’s family freed her and they fled for their lives through the black rain.

Donated to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum by Aiko Sato.

There are an estimated 15,000 nuclear warheads in the world today.

Many of them are far more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.


Junko’s Story: Surviving Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb
An SBS Australia Production

  • Words: Junko Morimoto
  • Producer, interviewer: Kylie Boltin
  • Illustrations: Nancy Liang
  • Art direction, design and development: Matt Smith
  • Interview translator: Hiromi Kurosaka
  • Camera: KY Cheung
  • Research, historical context, script editing: Debra Shulkes
  • Translation: Mark Stoyich
  • Subtitles: SBS Australia
  • Editing: Sam Criniti

A-Bomb artefacts courtesy of the Hiroshima Peace
Memorial Museum

  • Fused cups donated by Yukio Nakata
  • Wall clock donated by Kuwami Yoshida
  • Metal helmet donated by Nakasada Tanaka
  • Slip stained by black rain donated by Aiko Sato

Infographics and data visualisation references

  • “Little Boy” Atomic Bomb Detonation sequence:
    Coster-Mullen, John, Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man. Waukesha, WI: John Coster-Mullen, 2003
  • Casualties of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima:
    The table is computed from data in A. W. Oughterson and S. Warren (Editors), Medical Effects of the Atomic Bomb in Japan, McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., Chapter 4, 1956.
  • Increased Risk of Cancer Associated with Radiation Exposure amongst Hiroshima Survivors:
    • Site-specific cancer data: Preston, D. L., Ron, E., Tokuoka, S., Funamoto, S., Nishi, N., Soda, M., Mabuchi, K. and Kodama, K. Solid Cancer Incidence in Atomic Bomb Survivors: 1958–1998. Radiat. Res. 168, 1–64 (2007).
    • Site-specific cancer data: Preston, D. L., Ron, E., Tokuoka, S., Funamoto, S., Nishi, N., Soda, M., Mabuchi, K. and Kodama, K. Solid Cancer Incidence in Atomic Bomb Survivors: 1958–1998. Radiat. Res. 168, 1–64 (2007).
    • Leukemia data: Preston DL, Pierce DA, et al.: Effect of recent changes in atomic bomb survivor dosimetry on cancer mortality risk estimates. Radiation Research 2004; 162:377-89
    • Background: Background: Preston DL, Kusumi S, et al.: Cancer incidence in atomic-bomb survivors. Part III: Leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma, 1950-1987. Radiation Research 1994; 137:S68-97
  • Postscript — total nuclear weapons in the world today:
    SIPRI Yearbook 2015 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015), Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).