The Man Who Survived Two Atomic Bomb Blasts

The Man Who Survived Two Atomic Bomb Blasts

John killerlane - August 31, 2017

Tsutomu Yamaguchi survived not one, but both atomic bombs dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Yamaguchi was officially granted “hibakusha” (“atomic bomb victim”) status by the Japanese government in 1957, formally recognizing him as a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing. In January 2009, Yamaguchi applied for “nijῡ hibakusha” (“double atomic bomb victim”) status, and in March 2009, became the only officially recognized double survivor of both atomic bombings.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi was born on March 16, 1916, in Nagasaki. He joined Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in the 1930s, where he worked as a draughtsman. On the morning of August 6, 1945, Yamaguchi and two of his work colleagues, Akira Iwanaga and Kuniyoshi Sato were preparing to leave Hiroshima, where they had been working for the previous three months, designing an oil tanker. Firstly, they had to go to the Mitsubishi shipyard, prior to taking the train from Hiroshima to Nagasaki. While on the bus, Yamaguchi realized that he had forgotten his travel permit at his dormitory, so got off and made his way back to collect it. He took the next bus back and then began to walk the remainder of his journey to the shipyard.

Overhead, he heard the sound a single plane in the sky. It was an American B-29 bomber, the “Enola Gay,” named after its pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, mother. He looked up and saw the plane drop two parachutes. There was an intense flash and Yamaguchi’s naval air raid training immediately kicked in. He dove to the ground and rolled into an irrigation ditch, before locking his fingers over his eyes and plugging his ears with his thumbs. Seconds later, the 13-kiloton uranium atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” exploded. The force of the shockwave sent Yamaguchi whirling through the air before he crashed to the ground in a potato field.

The Man Who Survived Two Atomic Bomb Blasts
Australian Doctor

Yamaguchi had been less than two miles from the epicenter of the explosion. When he regained consciousness, he could see “a mushroomed pillar of fire,” rising high up into the sky. Although it was morning, the ash and smoke from the raging fires darkened the sky. Dazed, Yamaguchi found a dug-out bomb shelter two hundred yards away and took refuge alongside two students who were sheltering there. They pointed out his injuries to him and Yamaguchi only then realized that his face and arms had been badly burned and that both of his eardrums had been ruptured by the explosion.

Yamaguchi stayed there for a couple of hours, recovering from the shock and trauma he had endured, before setting out to the Mitsubishi shipyard, where he met his colleagues, Iwanga and Sato. All three decided to cross the city and make their way back to their dormitory. On the way, they encountered the utter devastation of the aftermath of the nuclear explosion.

Buildings burned and charred bodies lined the streets. Yamaguchi recalled seeing dying children, their hair burned, completely naked, not crying but laying in silence, along the streets. The only sound he remembered was of the city burning. At one point, Yamaguchi, Iwanga and Sato had to wade through a river which teemed with corpses. It was like Hell on Earth. They found that their dormitory had been destroyed by the explosion so settled for the night in an air-raid shelter, before taking the train to Nagasaki.

The Man Who Survived Two Atomic Bomb Blasts
U.S. President, Harry Truman, who authorised the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sixteen hours after the first use of a nuclear weapon in history, President Harry Truman revealed to the world that “the force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.” Truman added that if Japan did not surrender it would experience a “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had killed approximately 70,000 to 80,000 people and injured more than 70,000, tens of thousands of whom would later die as a result of the radiation they were exposed to.

Meanwhile, in Nagasaki, Yamaguchi went to the Mitsubishi company hospital for treatment on August 8. He arrived during an air raid alert and almost all of the hospital staff there had sought safety in underground shelters. However, one doctor remained, an ophthalmologist named Dr. Sato, a former schoolmate of Yamaguchi’s. Sato treated his injuries as best he could, by cutting away the outer layers of dead skin, before sterilizing and bandaging his wounds. After his treatment, Yamaguchi went home and when his mother first saw him, all covered in bandages, she thought that he was a ghost. Later that day Yamaguchi reunited with his wife Hisako and their infant son Katsutoshi.

Remarkably, Yamaguchi reported for work the following day, August 9, where he met with the company director, who did not believe his accounts of the utter destruction caused by a single bomb. As the director was speaking, Yamaguchi noticed another intense flash of white light outside the window of the office. He instinctively threw himself to the ground. Seconds later, a 22-kiloton plutonium bomb called “Fat Man” exploded. “Fat Man” was erroneously believed to be named after Winston Churchill, however, it was confirmed later by the physicist who named it, Howard Serber, that it was named that simply because of its shape.

Approximately 40,000 people were killed and tens of thousands more were injured in Nagasaki. As was the case in Hiroshima, thousands of the injured would later die from the injuries they sustained. Yet, Yamaguchi miraculously survived, again. Although the bandages which had covered his body had been blown off by the shockwave, he escaped with only minor injuries, cuts and bruises.

However, the radiation he had once more been exposed to would leave him feverishly ill for over a week. He also could not seek any medical treatment as the hospital where he had been treated earlier had been destroyed by the bomb. Yamaguchi set out to look for his wife and son, whom he discovered had also both survived. Yamaguchi, together with his family, huddled into a bomb shelter behind his house for over a week.

During that week he suffered from a high fever as a result of radiation poisoning. On August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender. All around Yamaguchi, people were crying. Yamaguchi admitted later that during the war that he had become so despondent that he had considered killing his family with an overdose of sleeping pills if Japan lost the war. However, when Japan finally surrendered, having survived both atomic bombings, Yamaguchi later said that he had no feeling about it, that he was neither happy or sad.

The Man Who Survived Two Atomic Bomb Blasts
Tsutomu Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi went on to work as a translator for the occupying American Marines. Later he worked as a school teacher before returning to work for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, designing oil tankers. Yamaguchi and his wife Hisako had two more children in the 1950s, Naoko and Toshiko. His daughter Naoko, has suffered from ill-health her whole life. Yamaguchi’s son Katsutoshi died in 2005 of cancer a week before what would have been his sixtieth birthday. His wife Hisako, who had survived the Nagasaki bombing, died aged 88 after suffering years of ill health from kidney and liver cancer.

His experience of surviving both atomic bombs changed Yamaguchi profoundly. He felt that it was fate that he had survived and decided to dedicate the later years of his life to promoting nuclear disarmament. Yamaguchi featured in a 2006 documentary by filmmaker Hideo Nakamura, about the 165 double survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, entitled “Twice Bombed, Twice Survived.” The documentary was screened at the United Nations Headquarters in New York that year, and afterward, Yamaguchi gave a passionate speech about his wish to see a world without nuclear weapons.

In January 2009, after decades of silence, Yamaguchi applied for official recognition from the Japanese government that he had survived both the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In March 2009, Yamaguchi became the only person officially recognized by the Japanese government as a nijῡ hibakusha (double atomic bomb victim). Yamaguchi chose to end his decades of silence because he wanted the world to know of his story after he had died. He had remained silent for so long out of respect for the other survivors who were not as fortunate as him, who had suffered from ill health for years after the bombings.

He had remained silent for so long out of respect for the other survivors who were not as fortunate as him, who had suffered from ill health for years after the bombings. In 2010, to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, a book containing 65 of Yamaguchi’s tanka poems, entitled, “And the River Flowed as a Raft of Corpses” was published. The book was translated by Columbia University doctoral candidate, Chad Diehl, who lived with Yamaguchi in Nagasaki during the summer of 2009. On January 4, 2010, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, double atomic bomb survivor, passed away from stomach cancer, aged 93.


Sources For Further Reading:

The Independent – How I Survived Hiroshima and Then Nagasaki

The Guardian – Japanese Man Wins Recognition for Surviving Two Atom Bombs

Encyclopedia Britannica – Enola Gay

American Heritage Foundation – “Little Boy” Atomic Bomb

American Heritage Foundation – “Fat Man” Atomic Bomb

American Heritage Foundation – Little Boy and Fat Man

History Channel – Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Before and After the Bombs

The Conversation – This Is What Happened the Morning the First Atomic Bomb Created a New World

BBC News – Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Women Survivors of The Atomic Bombs

Science Magazine – How Atomic Bomb Survivors Have Transformed Our Understanding of Radiation’s Impacts

Atomic Heritage Foundation – Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Smithsonian Magazine – Nine Eyewitness Accounts of The Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki