Mushroom Clouds over Las Vegas

From Hoover Dam to Howard Hughes, Iconic Photos look back at the unlikely success of America’s last frontier town. 

Why Las Vegas? Until very recently, it was not the most accessible place, nor was it the most exclusive of gambling dens; its arid Nevadan weather was unforgiving. Yet it is “Gambling and Entertainment Capital of the World” and every year, near forty million tourists flock to this desert casino town to dole out almost 15 billion dollars. But Las Vegas’ such success was never actually guaranteed; fittingly, no other town in history owed more to luck and coincidences.

Its modern history began with the Hoover Dam; although the Federal Government went so far as to create an artificial city to separate construction workers from Vegas’ notorious red light district, bars, and gambling dens, it was to Sin City that Franklin Roosevelt came when he arrived to open the dam. By then, cheap electricity from the dam had flowed into the city and earned Fremont Street its nickname “Glitter Gulch” (thanks to bright lights from its 24-hour casinos). Soon, the mob moved in.

The next phase came with the U.S. Army and its nuclear testing on a dried lakebed just outside the city; people came to Las Vegas to stand on the edge of the desert, and feel the ground shake, smoke billow and glass shatter around them. They stayed at the Atomic View Hotel, ordered Atomic Hamburgers, Atomic Hairdos, and Atomic Cocktails (equal parts vodka, brandy, champagne with a splash of sherry). Strippers in the city’s clubs took on atomic-themed names befitting third-tier superheroes. For five years, the city chose Miss Atom Bomb who wore a swimsuit fashioned after a mushroom cloud and was crowned by a similarly fungiform tiara.

It was in this giddy (and one might assume, radioactive) atmosphere that an unknown Las Vegas photographer climbed atop a parking lot opposite city’s the then most famous casino, the Pioneer Club, to capture an atomic blast behind the famed neon cowboy, Vegas Vic. Nevada nuclear tests quickly went underground, and today, with the Fremont Street Experience ruining the vista, such a photo would not be possible.

Yet, Las Vegas proved to be durable. In the late 50s, the atomic enthusiasm dissipated and the city was so threatened by newer casinos in Havana that it passed a law preventing Nevadan casinos from investing in Cuba. Yet, historical forces intervened once again in the form of Fidel Castro and his communist revolution; business quickly returned to Las Vegas. Soon, another mustachioed maverick, this time the aviator Howard Hughes, would come to wrestle Fremont casinos away from organized crime. The Strip and the modern Las Vegas it represented would be just around the corner. Literally.

Nagasaki, August 9th 1945

Interestingly enough, when Hiroshima was atom-bombed, the Tokyo government radio told the people that a “new type of bomb” had been used. The real horrors in Hiroshima were unknown to the wider populace; since the city was utterly destroyed and communications were hard, even the imperial government was not totally of what happened there. Two days would pass before the government met to discuss the new developments. In the wider world, the situation was quickly changing too; the Soviet Union’s declaration on war on Japan threw a wrench into both American and Japanese strategies.

On the American side, the decisions to use two nuclear bombs — to show than American has more than enough supply of such weapons — had been agreed upon since April 1945.  Only the potential targets were debated upon, so that the U.S. could ban conventional attacks on those cities — in part so it would be easier to measure the destruction from the atomic bomb. The top choice was the emperor’s place in Kyoto, but the decision was vetoed by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who spent his honeymoon there and enjoyed the city. (Another thing Stimson considered was that if the emperor were to perish, it would have hardened the Japanese resolve and precluded a surrender.) Top targets became Hiroshima and Kokura. However, August 9th 1945 was a particularly cloudy day in Kokura. The bombing carrying the bomb gave up on Kokura and went on to its secondary target,  Nagasaki.

The Japanese Supreme Council received the news that Nagasaki had been destroyed while they were just debating the terms of surrender. Now,  surrender was not only inevitable, but also the only route for survival. On August 15th,the Emperor’s surrender speech was broadcast over the radio — this was the first time an Emperor of Japan had deigned to speak through a radio.

On the day after the Nagaski Bombing,a military photographer  Yosuke Yamahata took over a hundred photographs of the devastated city. His photographs, taken in an interval of twelve hours in the  afternoon of August 10th, were the most extensive record of  the atomic bombings. In between Japan’s surrender and arrival of the American Occupation Forces, these photos were widely circulated; for instance, the 21 August issue of Mainichi Shinbun printed them. The Western audience would, however, have to wait further seven years before the censorship was lifted and they appeared in the 29 September 1952 issue of Life, together with Yoshito Matsushige’s photos of Hiroshima.  The same year they also appeared in the book form.

Photographing Hiroshima

Yesterday’s post on the Atom bombing of Hiroshima seems to have implied that Mr. Yoshito Matsushige — 32 year old cameraman for the Chugoku Newspaper — is the only person who photographed Hiroshima that day. Although Mr. Matsushige was the only one who documented the carnage around the epicenter, two other photographers, Seizo Yamada and Toshio Fukada photographed the mushroom cloud emanating from Hiroshima from safe(r) distances. Mr. Yamada took the above ground level photo from approximately a little over four miles northeast of Hiroshima, and Mr. Fukada’s four photos were taken from approximately the same distance as Mr. Matsushige’s about 20 minutes after the blast, and 20 minutes before Mr. Matsushige. Another photographer, Mitsugi Kishida travelled to the citycenter next morning to photograph the devastation. We are sorry for the errors.

Here is Mr. Matsushige’s account:

I had finished breakfast and was getting ready to go to the newspaper when it happened. There was a flash from the indoor wires as if lightening had struck. I didn’t hear any sound, how shall I say, the world around me turned bright white. And I was momentarily blinded as if a magnesium light had lit up in front of my eyes. Immediately after that, the blast came. I was bare from the waist up, and the blast was so intense, it felt like hundreds of needles were stabling me all at once. The blast grew large holes in the walls of the first and second floor. I could barely see the room because of all the dirt. I pulled my camera and the clothes issued by the military headquarters out from under the mound of the debris, and I got dressed. I thought I would go to either either the newspaper or to the headquarters.

That was about 40 minutes after the blast. Near the Miyuki Bridge, there was a police box. Most of the victims who had gathered there were junior high school girls from the Hiroshima Girls Business School and the Hiroshima Junior High School No.1. they had been mobilized to evacuate buildings and they were outside when the bomb fell. Having been directly exposed to the heat rays, they were covered with blisters, the size of balls, on their backs, their faces, their shoulders and their arms. The blisters were starting to burst open and their skin hung down like rugs. Some of the children even have burns on the soles of their feet. They’d lost their shoes and run barefoot through the burning fire. When I saw this, I thought I would take a picture and I picked up my camera. But I couldn’t push the shutter because the sight was so pathetic. Even though I too was a victim of the same bomb, I only had minor injuries from glass fragments, whereas these people were dying. It was such a cruel sight that I couldn’t bring myself to press the shutter.

Perhaps I hesitated there for about 20 minutes, but I finally summoned up the courage to take one picture. Then, I moved 4 or 5 meters forward to take the second picture. Even today, I clearly remember how the view finder was clouded over with my tears. I felt that everyone was looking at me and thinking angrily, “He’s taking our picture and will bring us no help at all.” Still, I had to press the shutter, so I harden my heart and finally I took the second shot. Those people must have thought me duly cold-hearted. Then, I saw a burnt streetcar which had just turned the corner at Kamiya-cho. There were passengers still in the car. I put my foot onto the steps of the car and I looked inside. There were perhaps 15 or 16 people in front of the car. They laid dead one on top of another. Kamiya-cho was very close to the hypocenter, about 200 meters away. The passengers had stripped them of all their clothes. They say that when you are terrified, you tremble and your hair stands on end. And I felt just this tremble when I saw this scene. I stepped down to take a picture and I put my hand on my camera. But I felt so sorry for these dead and naked people whose photo would be left to posterity that I couldn’t take the shot. Also, in those days we weren’t allowed to publish the photographs of corpses in the newspapers. After that, I walked around, I walked through the section of town which had been hit hardest. I walked for close to three hours. But I couldn’t take even one picture of that central area. There were other cameramen in the army shipping group and also at the newspaper as well. But the fact that not a single one of them was able to take pictures seems to indicate just how brutal the bombing actually was. I don’t pride myself on it, but it’s a small consolation that I was able to take at least five pictures. During the war, air-raids took place practically every night. And after the war began, there were many foods shortages. Those of us who experienced all these hardships, we hope that such suffering will never be experienced again by our children and our grandchildren. Not only our children and grandchildren, but all future generations should not have to go through this tragedy. That is why I want young people to listen to our testimonies and to choose the right path, the path which leads to peace.

Hiroshima, 6th August 1945

This was what Matsushige saw through his window

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Whether you agree with the decision or not, the facts were there: Hiroshima was an important army and navy base. Of about 350,000 people living there on that fateful day, the majority were women and children, since most adult men were fighting at the front.

Nuclear blast and wind destroyed buildings within its 1.5-mile radius. Yoshito Matsushige was barely out of this radius at a little over 1.6-miles from the ground zero. Heading out to the citycentre, Matsushige took the only photographs taken of Hiroshima on that calamitous day. Matsushige himself was not seriously injured by the blast, but the scenes of carnage and dying people prevented him from taking further pictures. (He had 24 possible exposures, in the 10 hours he spent wandering the devastated city, but only seven came out right).

The importance of scenes that Mr. Matsushige documented were not immediately realized in the outside world. Another bomb would follow a few days later, and the war in Far East was finally over. The tone of the Western Press, from the New York Times to Life, was almost triumphal. They would not receive the photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki under months later, and even then, only the heavily censored ones. In addition, the radiation sickness was dismissed as a Japanese effort to undermine American morale, and the stories to that effect were frequently killed. This type of censorship was so prevalent that when MGM had a scene casting doubts on whether an atomic weapon should have been used, the White House called the studio to change the script.

In Japan, the censorship was more draconian. It was not just buildings that were annihilated in Hiroshima; an entire collective memory too was erased. For many years the sole images of the bombings in Japan were sketches and paintings by survivors. General Douglas MacArthur had declared southern Japan off-limits from the foreign press. Wilfred Burchett — who secretively sneaked on a train — had his camera stolen, photos confiscated and was expelled and banned from Japan. Live footage taken by Akira Iwasaki was seized and taken to the United States, and was not returned until 1968. For Matsushige himself, his films were so toxic that he was unable to develop them for twenty days, and even then had to do so at night and in the open, rinsing it in a stream. When he tried to publish them, they were confiscated. Under the blanket rule that “nothing shall be printed which might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility,” graphic photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not printed until the U.S. occupation ended in Japan in April 1952. The magazine Asahi Gurafu opened the floodgates by publishing them in August 1952.

From top to bottom: first two photos showed people who escaped serious injury applying cooking oil to their burns near Miyuki bridge; in the third photo, a policeman, his head bandaged, issues certificates to civilians. The next photo shows shows the shadow of a person who was disintegrated at the moment of the blast. (These steps were cut out and now inside the Hiroshima Peace Park museum.) The last photo shows the damage to Matsushige family’s barbershop.

Atomic Test on the Enewetak Atoll

Between July 1945 and November 1962 the United States conducted at least 216 atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests. The photos documenting this are collected in a book, 100 Suns, the name given by J. Robert Oppenheimer to the world’s first nuclear explosion in New Mexico. Oppenheimer quoted from the Vedic text, the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One. I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

100 Suns was complied by a San Francisco photographer Michael Light using the archives from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Archives and heretofore classified materials from the Lookout Mountain Air Force Station in Hollywood. In 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union forced the nuclear testing to go underground, ending the haunting yet magnificent era of 100 Suns. The above picture was of 8.9 Megatons atom bomb ‘Oak’, tested at Enewetak Atoll on June 29th 1958 as the part of Operation Hardtack. With test moratoriums on the horizon, the army labs rushed out many new designs, and Oak was the first successful test for TX-46 full-yield thermonuclear bomb. The residents of Enewetak were evacuated involuntarily after WWII for the nuclear testing, and some 43 nuclear tests were fired at Enewetak between 1948 and 1958, including the first hydrogen bomb test, code-named Ivy Mike, which vaporized the island of Elugelab. Only in 1977, the U.S. government began decontaminating the islands and in 2000 compensated $340 million to the people of Enewetak.

During the Cold War, almost identical pictures of soldiers silhouetted against the bright nuclear sun were used for propaganda purposes on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Troops were used as guinea pigs but any nation testing nuclear weapons, including China, where an almost surreal propaganda video of the People Liberation Army soldiers marching towards an atomic blast was released. What a simpler time!

First Atomic Blast


Forget Hiroshima. Above was the aerial picture of the first atomic bomb crater near Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16th, 1945. The site was called Trinity Site; despite its subsequent notoriety, only one nuclear test took place at this location which itself was 60 miles from Alamogordo.

From two bunkers ten and seventeen miles away, Generals Thomas Farrell and Leslie Groves watched the detonation. J.Robert Oppenheimer, who came up with the name ‘Trinity’ from poetry of John Donne, was in the first bunker. The blinding light they saw was the dawn of so-called ‘Atomic Age’.

The photographer of the above image, Fritz Goro visited the first nuclear ground zero with Oppenheimer and Groves while it was still ‘hot’. For this German emigre photographer, it was a big deal but it was not the only ‘first’ he witnessed. During his four decades as a science photographer for Life magazine, he documented images made possible only by this turbulent century’s scientific advances: atomic orbitals, DNA helices, stars, blood circulation in animals, computer chips, and photos of the first plutonium ever produced. Goro unblinkingly documented fish eggs with well-developed eyes, minuscule yet recognizable cow fetuses (that became poster images for anti-abortion), a cancerous growth in a rabbit’s eye, a chick with an experimental transplanted eye, a rat with a walnutlike tumor growing from its head, and his most memorable and horrific 1965  photograph of surgery being conducted on a prenatal monkey.  Stephen Jay Gould called Goro “the most influential photographer that science journalism (and science in general) has ever known.”