Two Japanese cities were attacked by atomic bombs almost 80 years ago, killing hundreds of thousands of people and changing warfare forever.

The United States detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on this day in 1945 (August 6), while Nagasaki was targeted three days later. The two bombings are thought to have killed up to killed 226,000 people, most of them civilians.

But one man was lucky enough to survive both attacks, before going on to live to the ripe old age of 93.

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Naval engineer Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who died in 2010, enjoyed the unique claim to fame. He was on his way to work in Hiroshima when when a “great flash in the sky” knocked him unconscious.

When he came to, saw “a huge mushroom-shaped pillar of fire rising up high into the sky. It was like a tornado, although it didn't move, but it rose and spread out horizontally at the top. There was prismatic light, which was changing in a complicated rhythm, like the patterns of a kaleidoscope.”

But the US military had several more bombs in the pipeline, and a list of targets set to be destroyed ahead of the invasion of mainland Japan – some time in November 1945.

As Yamaguchi staggered towards the railway station in a bid to escape, he saw “a mother with a baby on her back".

Badly burned, Yamaguchi travelled home to Nagasaki.

Soon after he arrived, and was telling friends about his incredible experience, there was another blinding flash of light. “I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima."

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After the explosions, Yamaguchi became very ill with radiation sickness. “His hair fell out, the wounds on his arms turned gangrenous, and he began vomiting incessantly,” history.com reported.

Four Japanese cities satisfied the necessary conditions for a demonstration of America’s new super weapon.

The cities needed to be large, with sizeable populations, and to have “high strategic value,” such as major military bases or weapons factories.

They also needed to be relatively intact after the massive firebombing raids earlier in 1945.

The shortlist for destruction included Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata. Nagasaki was not on the original list.

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"Kyoto was seen as an ideal target by the military because it had not been bombed at all, so many of the industries were relocated and some major factories were there," says Alex Wellerstein, who is a science historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

But US. Secretary of War Henry Stimson wanted Kyoto removed from the list, some said because he had spent his honeymoon there in the 1920s and he was fond of the place.

"The military didn't want it removed so it kept putting Kyoto back on the list until late July but Stimson went directly to President Truman," says Prof Wellerstein.

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Whatever Stimson’s reasons were, the decision to remove Kyoto pushed Nagasaki into the firing line.

Even then, the port city was only fourth on the list, and it was only bad weather over the primary target, Kokura, that send the B-29 carrying America’s “Fat Man” atomic bomb on to Nagasaki.

That fateful decision by the mission commander, Maj. Charles W. Sweeney led to some 140,000 deaths in Nagasaki.

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Colonel Paul Tibbets, commander of the USAF B29 that dropped the first bomb, on Hiroshima, said of the death toll: “I knew we did the right thing. … I thought, yes, we’re going to kill a lot of people, but by God we’re going to save a lot of lives."

Some historians say that, apart from intimidating the Japanese leadership, the devastating attacks had an unspoken second purpose: to warn the Soviet Union not to invade Europe.

But while they probably prevented a third world war in the short term, they also began a deadly cycle of escalation. The race towards ever-bigger explosions culminated on the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful single weapon ever produced, with a yield equivalent to 58 megatons of TNT.

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“No matter how many bombs they had or how big their explosions grew, they needed more and bigger,” says historian Craig Nelson. ”Enough was never enough.”

The 1961 Tsar Bomba detonation paved the way to a series of test bans and treaties, but the menace of nuclear destruction will never go away.

As recently as last month, National Security Adviser Stephen Lovegrove warned of a “new security order” as the old Cold War certainties crumbled away and the risk of “accidental” nuclear war was increasing.

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“The monolithic blocks of Nato and the USSR were able to reach a shared understanding of doctrine,” Lovegrove said.

“This gave us a higher level of confidence that we would not miscalculate our way into nuclear war.

“Today, we do not have the same foundations with others who may threaten us”.

The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first to experience the horrors of nuclear attack, but there’s no certainty that they will be the last.

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