1 of 18
On July 16, 1945, the Atomic Age was born when a device with an explosive “yield” roughly equal to 20 kilotons of TNT was detonated in the desert of southeastern New Mexico. The explosion was so inconceivably violent, so fearsome, that one witness to the event, the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, famously claimed that a line from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, ran unbidden through his head: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Less than a month later, American forces dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands of men, women and children in an instant; condemning thousands more to slow, agonizing deaths from burns and radiation sickness in the months and years to come; and, in the eyes of most historians, both Western and Asian, hastening the surrender of the Japanese and bringing about the end of the Second World War.
Here, LIFE.com presents a selection of photographs, most of which were never published in LIFE magazine, taken in Hiroshima after the war ended. In the landscape of a ruined city, and on the scarred skin and misshapen limbs of Japanese who survived the world’s first nuclear attack, photographer Carl Mydans discovered the legacy — part nightmare, part surprising, wishful dream — of those world-changing explosions.
As LIFE put it to the magazine’s readers in September 1947: