I remember vividly the cold night air and the beautiful starry sky. Descending a sloping path that ran along the mountainside, and crossing over the ridge of the mountains, we reached the front gate of the Mitsubishi arsenal. A single sentry holding a fixed bayonet stood guard before the closed stone gate, and when we inquired about the situation within he told us that everything was in ruins, and that the city of Nagasaki was even worse off.
A warm wind began to blow. Here and there in the distance, I saw small fires, like elf-fires, smoldering: Nagasaki had already been completely destroyed. Higashi, Yamada, and I progressed quickly along the prefectural road that ran down the middle of the plain. Stepping carefully in spite of our hurry, we nearly tripped on the human and animal corpses lying in our path.
After we had walked about a kilometer, we were brought to a halt at the foot of a small stone bridge. Leaning up against the bridge, legs flung out before her, a mother cradling a small child mumbled in a plaintive, half-delirious voice: “Please, bring us a doctor . . . a doctor, please, quickly . . .” She had probably been lying there, injured, for over ten hours. We were at a loss for what to do; we had no means to help her, except to try to give comfort and encouragement. The child, of course, hung limp and lifeless in her arms. There were no longer any roads, but we moved on, picking our way over the ashen terrain that extended as far as we could see. In the early hours of summer dawn, after nearly two hours of walking, we finally arrived at the military police headquarters.
I light a cigarette as I recall the road we traversed, and the orders I was given on the day of our departure. I had been directed to photograph the situation in Nagasaki so as to be as useful as possible for military propaganda. At the same time I was concerned to discover the means for one’s survival in the midst of this tragedy. These, I remember, were the only two thoughts on my mind as I lay down to rest, gazing up at the beautiful dawn sky and waiting for the light to grow strong enough to begin taking photographs.
The appearance of the city differed from other bomb sites: here, the explosion and the fires had reduced the entire city (about four square kilometers) to ashes in a single instant. Relief squads, medical and fire-fighting teams, could do nothing but wait. Only the luck of being in a well-placed air raid shelter could be of any use for survival.
Even if the medical and fire-fighting teams from the surrounding areas had been able to rush to the scene, the roads were completely blocked with rubble and charred timber. One had not the faintest idea where the water main might be located, so it would have been impossible to fight the fires. Telephone and telegraph services were suspended; the teams could not contact the outside world for help. It was truly a hell on earth. Those who had just barely survived the intense radiation—their eyes burned and their exposed skin scalded—wandered around aimlessly with only sticks to lean on, waiting for relief. Not a single cloud blocked the direct rays of the August sunlight, which shone down mercilessly on Nagasaki, on that second day after the blast.
Although relief provisions and emergency supplies had arrived in the early morning, it was not until midday that rescue squads from Isahaya Army Corps and Omura Naval Cemetery arrived to administer medical care. I continued to photograph in these conditions until about three o’clock in the afternoon, when I had been ordered to set out on my return. I boarded a train conveying seriously injured victims to nearby hospitals, and I reached Hakata at about 3:00 a.m. on the eleventh.
One blessing, among these unfortunate circumstances, is that the resulting photographs were never used by the Japanese army—then struggling to resist defeat—in one last misguided attempt to rouse popular support for the continuation of warfare.
Human memory has a tendency to slip, and critical judgment to fade, with the years and with changes in life-style and circumstance. But the camera, just as it seized the grim realities of that time, brings the stark facts of seven years ago before our eyes without the need for the slightest embellishment. Today, with the remarkable recovery made by both Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it may be difficult to recall the past, but these photographs will continue to provide us with an unwavering testimony to the realities of that time. —Yosuke Yamahata, Photographing the Bomb, A Memo (1952)