Rare photomosaics of Hiroshima before and after the atomic bombing

Two photo-mosaics, 16 ¾”h x 20 ¼”w and 17 ½”h x 20 ¼”w plus margins respectively. Some creasing and minor mended edge tears, the longest extending 1 ¼” into the printed area of the Post Strike Mosaic.

Very rare, large-format “pre-” and “post-strike” photomosaics of Hiroshima, the latter compiled from photographs taken following the detonation of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb over the city.  

In the late Spring of 1945 Hiroshima was chosen as the target for the first combat use of an atomic bomb. It was one of the few major Japanese cities not already devastated by American bombing raids, and was thus viewed as a valuable location for testing the power of the new weapon. It also housed the Japanese Second General Army and a number of important manufacturing facilities, including weapons plants.

Thus, at just after 8:15am on August 6, 1945 the Little Boy “gun”-type bomb exploded 1900 feet above Hiroshima’s Shima Surgical Clinic with a force of 14-18 kilotons of TNT. The blast caused near-total destruction within a radius of a mile, ignited a massive firestorm, and killed and wounded well over 100,000 people, though the casualty estimates vary widely.

Prior to the bombing the U.S. Air Force had conducted extensive aerial surveys of Hiroshima, both as part of the broader photoreconnaissance effort used to plan the strategic bombing of Japan and—as late as August 3—with a particular eye toward its being targeted with an atomic bomb. After the detonation of Little Boy, these aerial photographic surveys seem to have resumed as soon as possible. This would have been of great urgency for war planners and members of the Manhattan Project seeking to understand the effects of the new weapon on cities and their structures, before these effects began to be masked by recovery and reconstruction efforts.

Offered here are two striking, large-format images of Hiroshima, one based on “pre-strike” and the other on “post-strike” aerial photography. Both are photomosaics, compiled from multiple high-altitude images of the city joined so expertly that the “seams” between the images are undetectable to an inexpert eye such as mine.

The images cover roughly seven square miles and are oriented with south at the top, with the harbor of Hiroshima just outside the upper border. The contrast between the two is stunning: Even from high altitude, it is clear in the post-strike image that several square miles have been laid waste, with buildings turned to rubble, fires still burning in places, and the rivers clogged with debris. It is hard to make out Ground Zero without a map for reference, but it is visible in the lower-left quadrant of each image, along the east bank of the Motoyasu River, where it diverges from the Ota Gawa (Look for two rivers forming a sort of “Y”, with a T-shaped bridge at the juncture.) Very close inspection of the immediate area reveals a large structure along the riverbank; known at the time as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site known colloquially as “the Atomic Bomb Dome”.

The post-strike image is dated August 6, 1945, but that likely refers to the bombing itself: On the 6th aerial surveys would have been impossible, with the city obscured by clouds of dust and smoke from the firestorm. However, the still-burning fires and the concentration of debris in the rivers suggest that it was based on aerial photographs taken within a few short days, with the photomosaic compiled very soon thereafter. When this example was printed, I cannot say exactly, but it may have been very early on or perhaps, based on its ownership history, as late as the Fall of 1946.

Provenance and references
The photomosaics were acquired somehow by Julian Wolf, a Technical Sergeant serving at the Military Tribunal Far for the Far East in Tokyo, April-November 1946. Wolf brought the photographs to San Francisco when he was discharged, and they descended to members of his family, from whom they were purchased by an ABAA colleague in recent years.

There is of course an extensive photographic record of Hiroshima before and after the bombing, but as of May 2022 these particular photomosaics are not listed in OCLC, a Google search yields no other copies, and I find no record of other copies having appeared on the antiquarian market. It seems likely, however, that others may be found in repositories such as the Library of Congress or National Archives.