Survivor of Hiroshima… and Nagasaki

Tsutomu Yamaguchi: Was he the luckiest or the unluckiest man in Japan in August of 1945? Here’s the whole story, not just the blurb in the local paper, and you can go to the website to see a picture of Mr. Yamaguchi, alive and kicking at age 94:

It seems almost improper to suggest that fortune was smiling on Tsutomu Yamaguchi in the dying days of the second world war.

On 6 August 1945, he was in Hiroshima, preparing to return home from a business trip when the American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on the city. Yamaguchi lived, while 140,000 other people who were in the city that morning died, some in an agonising instant, others many months later.

Burned and barely able to comprehend what had happened – only that he had witnessed a bomb unlike any used before – Yamaguchi spent a fitful night in an air raid shelter before returning home the following day.

That home, 180 miles to the west, was Nagasaki. His arrival came the day before it was devastated by a second US atomic bomb on 9 August.

In a barely conceivable course of events, he had twice been perilously close to nuclear ground zero; and both times he had lived. More than 70,000 other residents of Nagasaki were not so lucky.

More than 60 years later, the 93-year-old became the first and only known survivor of both attacks yesterday to win official recognition from Japanese authorities.

While other survivors died prematurely from cancer and liver disease caused by their exposure to radiation, Yamaguchi remains in relatively good health apart from near-deafness in one ear and complaints that his legs are “growing weak”.

Japanese records show dozens of people experienced the blast in Hiroshima only to be exposed to “residual radiation” in Nagasaki three days later. But Yamaguchi is the first to have been at ground zero when both explosions occurred.

According to a newspaper interview Yamaguchi gave on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Pacific war, he had spent the conflict designing oil tankers for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a wartime zaibatsu, or conglomerate, whose shipyards dominated the Nagasaki skyline.

After a three-month stint at the firm’s yards in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and two colleagues, Akira Iwanaga and Kuniyoshi Sato, prepared to return to Nagasaki on 7 August, 1945. The day before, they woke early, collected their belongings and prepared for the train journey west.

On the way to the station they became separated after Yamaguchi realised he had left his personal seal in the office.

He remembers hearing the Enola Gay circling above, but thought nothing of it: Hiroshima was an important wartime industrial base, and the sound of circling planes had become a fact of life.

Within seconds he had been knocked to his feet by the force of the blast as “Little Boy” detonated 580 metres above central Hiroshima just after 8.15 am, announcing its arrival with a blinding flash followed by a deafening boom. As he stumbled to the train station the next day, Yamaguchi witnessed the destruction and carnage left by the bomber’s 13-kiloton payload.

The following day, his burns swathed in bandages, Yamaguchi reported for work in Nagasaki, like Hiroshima an important industrial and military base.

At 11.02 on 9 August, as his boss reportedly questioned his sanity for believing that a single bomb could destroy a city the size of Hiroshima, a 25-kiloton plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki, throwing Yamaguchi to the ground.

He, his wife and baby son survived and spent the following week in a shelter near what was left of their home. His son has since died of cancer aged 59.

After the war Yamaguchi worked for the US occupation authorities, became a teacher and eventually returned to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Yamaguchi was quoted yesterday by the Mainichi newspaper. “My double radiation exposure is now an official government record. It can tell the younger generation the horrifying history of the atomic bombings even after I die,” he said.

As a registered survivor of the Nagasaki bombing, Yamaguchi has owned a pale violet copy of the Atomic Bomb Victim Health Handbook since 1957, entitling him to monthly allowances, free medical checkups and funeral costs. More than 260,000 others are similarly covered.

Yamaguchi’s handbook confirmed he was within a three-kilometre radius of ground zero in both cities, but the reference to Hiroshima was deleted when he renewed it at Nagasaki city hall in 1960.

Officials refused to recognise Yamaguchi’s special status because, they said, it would not affect his medical and welfare entitlements, but relented after he filed another request earlier this year.

“As far as we know, he is the first one to be officially recognised as a survivor of atomic bombings,” Toshiro Miyamoto, a Nagasaki city official, told the Associated Press. “It’s such an unfortunate case, but it is possible there are more like him.”

And here is his first-hand account of what he experienced:

How I survived Hiroshima – and then Nagasaki

Tsutomu Yamaguchi must be one of the luckiest people on the planet. In his only interview with a British newspaper, he tells David McNeill about the moment when the same white light filled the room again

Thursday, 26 March 2009


Aerial view showing atom bomb damage at Hiroshima, 6 August 1945

It will go down as one of the most inspiring survival stories ever to emerge from a horrific war. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in his twenties when he found himself in Hiroshima on the morning of 6 August 1945, as a single B-29 US bomber droned overhead. The “Little Boy” bomb that it dropped from its payload would kill or injure 160,000 people by the day’s end.

Among them was the young engineer – who was in town on a business trip for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – who stepped off a tram as the bomb exploded.

Despite being 3km (just under two miles) from Ground Zero, the blast temporarily blinded him, destroyed his left eardrum and inflicted horrific burns over much of the top half of his body. The following morning, he braved another dose of radiation as he ventured into Hiroshima city centre, determined to catch a train home, away from the nightmare.

But home for Mr Yamaguchi was Nagasaki, where two days later the “Fat Man” bomb was dropped, killing 70,000 people and creating a city where, in the words of its mayor, “not even the sound of insects could be heard”. In a bitter twist of fate, Yamaguchi was again 3km from the centre of the second explosion. In fact, he was in the office explaining to his boss how he had almost been killed days before, when suddenly the same white light filled the room. “I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima,” Mr Yamaguchi said.

His is a truly remarkable story, all the more so because, for years, its protagonist was determined to play it down. But now, at the age of 93 and dying from cancer – probably caused by the atomic bombs that almost killed him, twice – Mr Yamaguchi has finally been awarded the recognition his life deserves. This week, the Nagasaki and Hiroshima governments recorded Mr Yamaguchi as a double-hibakusha, acknowledging that he was exposed to both blasts that incinerated the cities in 1945. “As far as we know, it is the first time that a dual exposure to atomic bombings has been entered into an A-bomb survivor’s ID,” officials said.

Living out his final days in the rebuilt Nagasaki, where he resides with his daughter, Toshiko, the old man is happy his tale is reaching people around the world. “After I die, I want the next generation of hibakusha and the children after that to know what happened to us,” he told The Independent in a telephone interview.

Like many of the roughly 260,000 survivors of the atomic explosions, Mr Yamaguchi suffered agony for much of his life, as his daughter explains. “Until I was about 12, he was wrapped in bandages for his skin wounds, and he went completely bald,” says Toshiko, now 60. “My mother was also soaked in black rain [the famously radioactive rain that fell after both bombings] and was poisoned. We think she passed on that poison to us.”

Yamaguchi’s children, like many second-generation hibakusha, have also been plagued by health problems. His son, Katsutoshi, died of cancer in 2005 aged 59. His daughter Naoko has, in Toshiko’s words, been “sickly” all her life. His wife died last year, aged 88, of kidney and liver cancer after a lifetime of illness. “I suffer too from a terribly low white blood cell count, so I worry about what will happen to me,” Toshiko adds.

But his children’s illnesses aside, Mr Yamaguchi seemed determined to live his life as normally as possible. After recovering from his burns and radiation sickness, he returned to work as a ship engineer in the local port, and rarely discussed what happened to him. “Afterwards he was fine – we hardly noticed he was a survivor,” recalls Toshiko. Her father raised his family and declined to play any part in the anti-bomb activities that fill the lives of some survivors because “he was so healthy, he thought it would have been unfair to people who were really sick”.

Mr Yamaguchi must have watched the world outside his city with alarm. Six decades after his horrific experiences, the US alone has 8,000 active or operational warheads, each carrying on average about 20 times the destructive power of Hiroshima. The once-select nuclear club of America, Russia, China, France and Britain has been swelled by new recruits Israel, Pakistan, India and probably North Korea. Even conservative Japanese politicians hint that they might one day need the bomb.

“I can’t understand why the world cannot understand the agony of the nuclear bombs,” he says, speaking through his daughter. “How can they keep developing these weapons?”

Along with thousands of others, Mr Yamaguchi applied for hibakusha status with Nagasaki when the government finally began to provide health assistance (and later other benefits) in 1957. His government-issued ID stated he was exposed to radiation only in Nagasaki, thereby neglecting his unique status as a double survivor. And he saw no need to draw attention to it.

But as he got older, things changed. In his eighties, he finally wrote a book about his experiences, and was invited to take part in a documentary called Nijuuhibaku (Twice Bombed, Twice Survived), about the handful of double A-bomb victims. The film shows him weeping bitterly as he describes watching bloated corpses floating in the city’s rivers and encountering the walking dead of Hiroshima, whose melting flesh hung like “giant gloves”.

Three years ago, the film was screened at the UN in New York, where Mr Yamaguchi, by then wheelchair-bound, pleaded with the audience to fight for the abolition of nuclear weapons. “As a double atomic bomb survivor I experienced the bomb twice, and I sincerely hope that there will not be a third,” he said.

His friends, including local journalist Masami Miyashita, told him he should make his status official. “I’ve never met anyone like him,” says Mr Miyashita. “There are other people who suffered in both bombings, but nobody I know who was so close to the blasts. To survive once is agony; twice is a miracle. But he has never made a big deal about it.”

Today, Mr Yamaguchi believes that God “planted a path” for him. “It was my destiny that I experienced this twice and I am still alive to convey what happened,” he said. So in January this year, he filed a request for double recognition.

Very late in life then, and much to his surprise, the retired engineer finds himself making a small piece of history, and seeing his face in newspapers and on TV across the world. Some have called Mr Yamaguchi the luckiest man alive, but his daughter says he rarely considers such things. “He laughs when asked why he was so lucky,” says Toshiko. “He just doesn’t know.”

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