On Aug. 6, 1945, shortly after Germany officially surrendered to the Allied Forces during World War II, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It was the first time the use of nuclear weapons were used in combat and the results were devastating. Approximately 80,000 people were killed in the blast, 35,000 people were injured and nearly 60,000 people would perish over the following year from the effects of the fallout.
One of the people fortunate to survive Hiroshima was Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a marine engineer for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Yamaguchi, a Nagasaki native, was in Hiroshima on a three-month business trip on which he and his colleagues were working on a new oil tanker design.
August 6th was supposed to be his last day in the city before returning home to his wife and son.
According to a history.com article, Yamaguchi said he was walking through the Mitsubishi shipyard one last time when he heard the whirr of an aircraft overhead. When he looked up, he saw the American B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay drop a parachute-tethered object from its hold. Unknown to him, that object was the 13-kiloton nuclear bomb known as Little Boy.
Seconds later, a bright flash filled the sky which he described as “the lightning of a huge magnesium flare”.
Yamaguchi had just enough time to dive into a ditch, but he didn’t remain there for long. The explosion and the resulting shock wave ripped him from the protection of his impromptu shelter and hurled him through the air into a nearby potato patch. As it would turn out, he was less than two miles from ground zero.
Despite the close proximity to the blast, Yamaguchi only suffered a ruptured eardrum and burns across his upper body.
He would later tell The Independent, a British newspaper: “I didn’t know what had happened. I think I fainted for a while. When I opened my eyes, everything was dark, and I couldn’t see much. It was like the start of a film at the cinema before the picture has begun when the blank frames are just flashing up without any sound.”
After spending the night in an air-raid shelter, he, and a couple of his colleagues who also managed to survive the blast, journeyed through a hellscape of obliterated buildings, flickering fires, and melted corpses toward the train station, which was somehow still operating. At one point, with the bridges destroyed, he was forced to swim across a river of bloated and charred bodies – an image which would remain with him until the day he died.
On August 8th, Yamaguchi traveled back to his hometown of Nagasaki, but his journey wasn’t over yet. After a visit to the hospital to treat his wounds, Yamaguchi returned to work. In a dark twist of fate, it was as he tried to explain his experience to his boss – who had a hard time believing his traumatized employee – that the United States’ second atomic bomb, Fat Man, detonated.
The Enola Gay was originally scheduled to drop the second bomb over the city of Kokura, but thanks to lingering cloud cover, the target was changed to Nagasaki. This second attack killed somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 people with tens-of-thousands perishing later from the resulting long-term health effects.
Yamaguchi was once again within lethal range of the epicenter of the blast. The explosion’s shock wave ripped his bandages off and he would be exposed to more cancer-causing radiation, but he would later learn that the city’s hilly landscape and a reinforced stairwell would save him from immediate death and he escaped relatively unharmed.
“I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima,” he told The Independent.
After finding his way out of the mutilated Mitsubishi building, he did what all loving fathers and husbands would do: he went home to make sure his family was safe, only to find his home had been flattened. In another surprising twist of fate, he would later find his wife and son with nothing more than superficial wounds. Apparently, she had gone out to look for burn ointment for her husband when the bomb exploded and had taken refuge in a nearby tunnel. If Yamaguchi had not survived Hiroshima, his wife would’ve never left the house to find the medication, and would’ve most certainly perished.
Although he survived, receiving two high-level doses of radiation began to take its toll. Not only did his hair fall out, but his limbs became gangrenous and he regurgitated anything he tried to put in his stomach. Throughout the course of the war, Yamaguchi became so despondent over the state of his country that he considered honor killing his family with an overdose of sleeping pills if Japan lost. However, when Emperor Hirohito announced the country’s surrender on August 15th, he was already so close to death that the radio broadcast failed to incite any emotion from the 29-year old.
“I was neither sorry nor glad. I was seriously ill with a fever, eating almost nothing, hardly even drinking. I thought that I was about to cross to the other side,” he told The Independent.
Unlike the tens-of-thousands of who would die from the effects of radiation and fallout, Yamaguchi would almost fully recover. Aside from losing all hearing in his left ear and having his gallbladder removed, all other physical ailments went away as time passed. Because of his seemingly miraculous recovery, Yamaguchi shied away from joining any anti-nuclear bomb movements in the following years and, because the long-term side effects of the bombs were still unclear, he kept his story to himself in an attempt to protect his family.
However, after his son passed away from cancer in 2005, Yamaguchi decided his story needed to be made public. He appeared in two documentaries, wrote memoirs, and, at the age of 90, traveled to New York City to address the United Nations. In 2009, less than a year before his death, he became the only person to be officially recognized by the government of Japan as a double hibakusha (survivor of the atomic bomb) – although there are approximately 165 people reported to have survived both attacks.
To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima by Charles Pellegrino