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One scene shared by all of the 20th century’s bloodiest conflicts might have been lifted straight from The Road Warrior, or a Beckett play: spectral landscape; buildings obliterated; blasted trees; lifeless wasteland. The photographs in this gallery, for instance—pictures that starkly reference every bleak, war-battered panorama from Gettysburg to Verdun to Stalingrad to Chosin Reservoir to Pork Chop Hill—were made in September, 1945, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
But far from chronicling the aftermath of a sustained, slogging campaign, these pictures—none of which were published in LIFE magazine—depict the devastation produced in a few unspeakably violent seconds. Here, LIFE.com presents pictures from both cities taken in the weeks and months following the bombings—bombings that killed a combined 120,000 people outright, and tens of thousands more through injury and radiation sickness. Included, as well, are scans of typed memos from photographer Bernard Hoffman—quietly revelatory notes like the one he wrote on September 3, 1945, to LIFE’s long-time picture editor, Wilson Hicks:
The reasons most of these and many more pictures by LIFE photographers on the ground in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never published have largely been lost or simply forgotten over the intervening seven decades. Perhaps a family album (see slide #4) too-readily humanized an enemy that had been so effectively demonized and dehumanized for four long, brutal years. (Of that image, photographer Bernard Hoffman wrote to LIFE’s long-time photo editor, Wilson Hicks, on September 9, 1945: “Assume this had been a private dwelling. The album was water soaked and some of the pix stuck together. . . . However, since this album came through the blast intact, and remains the only evidence of what once had been a home and family, I’m sending the pictures on for what they’re worth to you.”)
Or maybe a specific picture didn’t make it into LIFE because it too-closely resembled another image that had run in an issue of the magazine a week, or a month, before.
The fact of the matter is, as with almost all of the photographs from the vast LIFE archives that never made it into the pages of the magazine, we’ll likely never know why the remarkable pictures here went unpublished for so long.
Finally, below are excerpts from various issues of LIFE published after the war that convey the powerful, discordant reactions—relief, horror, pride, fear—that the bombings, and the long-sought victory over Japan, unleashed. Today, when America and Japan are, for the most part, staunch allies, trading partners and avid fans of one another’s goods, foods and popular culture, the words and sentiments below are a vivid reminder that the Second World War is history—bloody, complicated, indelible history.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.