HIROSHIMA, Japan - Tens of thousands of people were gathering for peace ceremonies in Hiroshima on Wednesday, marking the 69th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of the city, as anti-nuclear sentiment runs high in Japan.
Bells tolled as ageing survivors, relatives, government officials and foreign delegates observed a moment of silence in the rain at 8:15 am local time (2315 GMT), when the detonation turned the western Japanese city into an inferno.
Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui urged people to listen to the voice of survivors as he delivered a speech at a ceremony also attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy "'Water, please.' Voices from the brink of death are still lodged in the memory of a boy who was 15 and a junior high student," the mayor, referring to the memories of a survivor.
"The pleas were from younger students," he said, adding the survivor's grisly description of what he saw: "Their badly burned, grotesquely swollen faces, eyebrows and eyelashes singed off, school uniforms in ragged tatters." The mayor noted that many survivors feel profound guilt over living through the attack.
But "people who rarely talked about the past because of their ghastly experiences are now, in old age, starting to open up," he said.
An American B-29 bomber named Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, in one of the final chapters of World War II. It had killed an estimated 140,000 by December that year.
On August 9, the port city of Nagasaki was also bombed, killing an estimated 70,000 people.
Japan surrendered days later - on August 15, 1945 - bringing the war to a close.
Historians have long been at odds over whether the twin attacks brought a speedier end to the war by forcing Japan's surrender and preventing many more casualties in a planned land invasion.
The bombed cities have spearheaded anti-nuclear movements, calling atomic bombs "the absolute evil".
Last week, US media reported the death of Theodore Van Kirk, the last surviving crewman of the Enola Gay, who passed away aged 93.
A funeral was reportedly scheduled for August 5 in his hometown of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, which would coincide with the Hiroshima anniversary in Japan.
Anti-nuclear sentiment flared in Japan after an earthquake-sparked tsunami left some 19,000 dead or missing and knocked out cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011.
None of those deaths were directly attributed to the nuclear crisis. But the reactor meltdowns spread radiation over a large area and forced thousands to leave their homes in the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Despite strong public opposition, Japan's nuclear watchdog last month said that two atomic reactors were safe enough to switch back on.
The decision marked a big step towards restarting the country's nuclear plants, which were shut after the disaster, and sparked accusations that the regulator was a puppet of the powerful atomic industry.