History in Pics

Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford

Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford visiting Eric Idle in his home in 1978.

New York City

Before the creation of the EPA, New York was one of America’s most polluted cities (1966).

The 1966 New York City smog was a historic air-pollution event in New York City that occurred from November 23–26, that year’s Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It was the third major smog in New York City, following events of similar scale in 1953 and 1963.

On November 23, a large mass of stagnant air over the East Coast trapped pollutants in the city’s air. For three full days, New York City experienced severe smog with high levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, smoke, and haze. Smaller pockets of air pollution pervaded the New York metropolitan area throughout other parts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. On November 25, regional leaders initiated a “first-stage alert” in the city, state, and neighboring states. During the alert, leaders of local and state governments asked residents and industry to take voluntary steps to minimize emissions. People with respiratory or heart conditions were advised by health officials to stay indoors. The city’s garbage incinerators were shut off, requiring massive hauling of garbage to landfills. A cold front dispersed the smog on November 26 and the alert ended.

A medical research group conducted a study estimating that 10 percent of the city’s population suffered some negative health effects from the smog, such as stinging eyes, coughing, and respiratory distress. City health officials initially maintained that the smog had not caused any deaths, but a statistical analysis indicated that 168 people likely died because of the smog, and another study found 366 people likely had their lives shortened.

The smog served as a catalyst for greater national awareness of air pollution as a serious health problem and political issue. New York City updated its local laws on air pollution control, and a similar weather event passed in 1969 without major smog.

Japanese dive bomber

The final moments of a Japanese Dive Bomber, 1945.

The pilot might have already been dead by the time the bomber was going down. Getting knocked out would have probably been a small mercy compared to being burnt alive or drowning.

American pilots in World War Two often talked about what they would do if their plane caught fire. First plan was to make a steep dive into the ground, rather than burn alive. There’s a passage that stuck with me from an autobiography of a ww2 British bomber crew member called In for a Penny, in for a Pound. He describes that if they were to survive a crash but find themselves completely stuck in a burning wreck, they were instructed to stick their face in the flames and breathe in. Their lungs would be incinerated from the heat, making them pass out, allowing a quicker and less painful death than being burned alive.


Berlin after World War 2 July 1945.

There were vast piles of rubble everywhere. Other areas were rows of building walls with collapsed interiors — the skeletons of a destroyed city. The irreplaceable architectural gems of the Schlüter, Knobelsdorf, Schadow and Schinkel were annihilated. Palaces, museums, churches, monuments and cultural sites fell victim to the bombs.

The city was bombed by the RAF Bomber Command between 1940 and 1945, by the USAAF Eighth Air Force between 1943 and 1945, and the French Armee de l’Air between 1944 and 1945 as part of the Allied campaign of strategic bombing of Germany. It was also attacked by aircraft of the Red Air Force, especially in 1945 as Soviet forces closed on the city. British bombers dropped 45,517 tons of bombs; the Americans dropped 23,000 tons. About a third of the city, especially the inner-city, was in ruins: 600,000 apartments had been destroyed, and only 2.8 million of the city’s original population of 4.5 million still lived in the city. Estimates of the total number of dead in Berlin from air raids range from 20,000 to 50,000.

When the Soviets (who were the first occupying power) arrived in Berlin, they saw a city devastated by the air raids and street fighting. It was described as a Geisterstadt (“ghost town”). According to Soviet estimations, the clean-up operation would last 12 years. On May 29, all women aged between 15 and 65 were conscripted as Trümmerfrauen (rubble women). In all, 60,000 women worked to rebuild Berlin.

The biggest problem that the Berliners had to face was the threat of starvation. German war-time ration cards were no longer valid. Any remaining rations were either used to feed Russian troops or stolen by hungry Germans. On May 15, the Russians introduced a new five-tier ration-card system: The highest tier was reserved for intellectuals and artists; rubble women and Schwerarbeiter (manual workers) received the second-tier card, which was more valuable to them than the 12 Reichsmark they received for cleaning up a thousand bricks; the lowest card, nicknamed the Friedhofskarte (cemetery ticket) was issued to housewives and the elderly. During this period, the average Berliner was around 6 to 9 kg (13 to 20 lb) underweight.


Hiroshima before and after the atomic bombing, August 6, 1945.

People got severe burns on the uncovered skin, caused by the brief and intense wave of light. The skin was falling off victims and people with open wounds lay everywhere. Most medical facilities were leveled in the blast so there was nowhere local to go for treatment, anyway. Many had radiation doses that would cause death in the next few days or weeks.

Massive infection or organ failure would eventually kill these people. Immune cells were also rapidly dividing. The skin might have had a leathery, tan color, a characteristic sign of heavy exposure to radiation. There were many more wounds than just thermal injuries from the intense light of the explosion and radiation exposure. The houses were mostly built of wood, so many far enough away from the explosion would catch fire instead of vanishing entirely; the occupants might have third-degree burns from the fire alone.

Many people who happened to be looking out the window and towards the blast were blinded. As if that wasn’t enough, if they didn’t seek shelter quickly enough, any glass would have exploded away from ground zero, and into anyone unfortunate enough to still stand nearby them. Beyond the glass trauma, there were, of course, many regular traumatic injuries caused by structures collapsing onto their occupants.

The most interesting thing about the atomic bomb is the cultural impact it left on the entire world. Japan was the epicenter of the atomic bomb’s premier metaphorically as well as physically. A large portion of Japan’s popular media thematically alludes to the Japanese people’s shock at the horrific amount of power the two bombs released. Films like Godzilla served as allegories to Japan’s powerlessness against a power so great that they couldn’t comprehend.

And to be fair, most people around the world couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of an atomic explosion. A man named Tsutomu Yamaguchi survived both blasts. He was an engineer, and after surviving the first blast he made his way to work at Nagasaki where he explained the ungodly destruction he witnessed. His coworkers (other engineers obviously) scoffed it off as imaginations and hallucinations because atomic science did not have very far outreach at the time. To their knowledge, there was not enough energy in the world for humans to harness that much energy in a single blast. From here, you might be able to empathize what it’s like to witness such unimaginable power as if the firsthand experience of God’s wrath. Through that window of experience, I can understand why many of Japan’s movies, comics, shows, and modern stories are so bleak.


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