In August 1945, the world witnessed for the first time the devastation that atomic bombs could cause. The two bombs the United States dropped on two Japanese cities killed over 200,000 people.
Among the survivors of both bombings was Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a Japanese engineer who became known as the “double atomic bomb survivor.” Yamaguchi’s experiences offer a unique insight into the horrors of nuclear warfare and the long-lasting effects it can have on individuals and communities.
Who Was Tsutomu Yamaguchi?
Yamaguchi was in many respects was just an ordinary man. He was born on 16 March 1916 in Nagasaki, Japan. He grew up in a family of farmers and was the third of five children.
He was a bright child and it soon became clear that farming wasn’t in his future. As a young man he went to, and graduated from, the Mukaiyama National School, a respected technical school in Nagasaki. He then attended the Nagasaki Technical College (now a University) where he studied to become a naval engineer.
Not long after graduating, Yamaguchi began working for Mitsubishi heavy industries where, he designed oil tankers. He was still working there when Japan joined World War 2.
As the war in the Pacific took its toll on the Japanese industrial base, Yamaguchi watched the world around him change. During this time Japanese industry suffered as resources became increasingly scarce and tankers were sunk.
Yamaguchi claimed to have been against Japan joining the war from the start. As the war dragged on he reportedly became so despondent over what had become of Japan that he considered honor killing his family with an overdose if Japan ever lost the war. He had no idea what the future had in store for him.
During the summer of 1945, Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a three-month business trip. The timing couldn’t have been worse. On 6 August he and two colleagues, Akira Iwanaga and Kuniyoshi Sato, were on their way to the train station out of the city when Yamaguchi realized he had forgotten his hanko (a type of id). He left his colleagues and headed back to the office to fetch it.
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At 8.15 am Yamaguchi was walking towards the city docks when the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, dropped the “Little Boy” Atomic Bomb, targeting the city center, 3km (1.9 miles) away. Later, Yamaguchi would recall seeing the bomber flying overhead, followed by two small parachutes before everything was eclipsed by a “great flash in the sky”.
Yamaguchi was knocked over and the explosion ruptured his eardrums and left him temporarily blind. His left side was also covered in terrible radiation burns. He eventually managed to crawl to a shelter where he recovered himself enough to set out and try to find his two friends.
As luck would have it, they too had far enough from the center of the explosion to have survived, and had spent the night in another air-raid shelter. The trio returned home to Nagasaki where they were treated for their burns. Amazingly, Yamaguchi was back at work just two days later.
At 11 am on August 9, 1945, Yamaguchi was updating his boss on the events at Hiroshima as another American bomber, the Bockscar, dropped the “Fat Man” atomic bomb over Nagasaki’s city center. Once again, Yamaguchi was just over 3km (1.9 miles) away from ground zero.
This time, he was unhurt by the initial explosion. Unfortunately, his bandages were ruined and, in the mayhem, he was unable to find clean replacements. He developed a high fever and suffered from continuous vomiting for the next few weeks. His long-term health would never be the same again.
But he survived both attacks, one of the very few to have done so and a feat which earned him the title “unluckiest man in the world”. During the Allied occupation of Japan, Yamaguchi would go on to serve as a translator for the occupying forces. He later returned to his old job working for Mitsubishi and he and his wife had two daughters.
In 1957 the Japanese government officially recognized those who had survived the bombs as “hibakusha”. Yamaguchi’s identification only said he had been at the Nagasaki bombing but Yamaguchi had no complaints. He was just happy to be relatively happy, healthy, and alive.
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As he grew older, however, Yamaguchi’s point of view began to change and he became increasingly vocal about the evils of nuclear weapons. In his 80s he wrote a book on his experiences, Ikasareteiru inoch, and a book of poetry.
He spent his final years as a vocal proponent of nuclear disarmament, telling one interviewer, “The reason that I hate the atomic bomb is because of what it does to the dignity of human beings”.
His change in attitude isn’t surprising. Yamaguchi’s life was marked by suffering thanks to the events of the bombings. He never regained the hearing in his left ear and spent over a decade wrapped in bandages thanks to wounds that refused to heal.
His health in later life was marked by radiation-related ailments including cataracts and acute leukemia. His wife, a fellow Nagasaki survivor, died of kidney and liver cancer in 2008 at the age of 88.
In 2009 Yamaguchi discovered he was dying from stomach cancer. That same year he applied for double recognition as a survivor of both bombs, becoming the only citizen to be officially recognized as such. He followed his wife on 4 January 2010 at the age of 93.
Tsutomu Yamaguchi’s survival of both atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a remarkable feat that defied the odds. His experiences serve as a sobering reminder of the devastating effects of nuclear weapons. Despite living with the physical and emotional scars of the bombings for the rest of his life, Yamaguchi dedicated himself to promoting peace and nuclear disarmament.
His story serves as an inspiration to all those who work towards a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons. As we reflect on the legacy of the atomic bombings, we must remember the human cost of war and the importance of striving for peace.
Top Image: The extent of the first atomic bomb explosion over Hiroshima. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was within the area circled. Source: W.wolny / Public Domain.