The shadow of the mushroom cloud hung over the latter half of the twentieth century. From tiny bombs to giant weapons with nightmarish power to a real-life doomsday weapon, the world’s two superpowers — the US and the Soviet Union– did their level best to develop weaponry that could slingshot the human species back to the Stone Age.
Fortunately, while these weapons were tested extensively (causing a lot of environmental damage and prompting the US government to become body snatchers to study the effects), they were only ever fired in anger twice, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was present at both detonations, earning him the dubious distinction of being the only man officially recognized as surviving two atomic bombs.
Fire in the sky
During World War II, Tsutomu Yamaguchi worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, designing oil tankers. Originally from Nagasaki, where he lived with his wife and son, he was sent to Hiroshima on a three month assignment with the shipbuilding division of MItsubishi there. Despite Hiroshima’s importance as a dock and shipyard, it had not been touched up to that point by the American bombing raids that had laid waste to Tokyo and several other Japanese cities.
Even so, the sight of American B-29 bombs over head was common. So when Yamaguchi saw one over head the morning of August 6, 1945, a day before he was set to return home to Nagasaki, he thought little of it. Then the sky lit up with a tremendous flash and Yamaguchi was knocked to the ground. He blacked out. When he awoke later, he was surrounded by hellish destruction, the sky dominated by a fiery mushroom cloud.
Disoriented, suffering burns over his upper body and some hearing loss in his left ear, Yamaguchi made his way to an air raid shelter, then to the ship yard where he met some of his coworkers who also survived the blast (they were not recognized by the government for reasons that remain unclear). They gathered their belongings and spent the night in an air raid shelter before getting on a train to Nagasaki.
Back home, Yamaguchi went to the hospital to retrieve treatment for his burns. He reported to work on August 9. His boss thought he was insane for believing that a single bomb could destroy a city. At 11:00 that morning, an even more powerful device than the one that destroyed Hiroshima dropped from an American B-29. Nagasaki was obliterated in an instant.
This time, Yamaguchi was not harmed in the blast, although he would later go mostly deaf in one ear. He made his way back home to find his wife and son, who also survived the blast. While he was not harmed in the second blast, he still suffered the burns sustained from the first, and since Nagasaki’s hospitals were destroyed he could not obtain proper treatment. He lay for a week in his home with a fever. On August 15, more or less recovered, he and the rest of the Japanese nation heard the unthinkable, unbearable news: Japan had surrendered. The war was finally over.
Life after the bombs
The bombs levelled two cities and killed nearly a quarter million people in total, and many more over subsequent years as the horrors of radiation reared their ugly heads. Those who survived the bomb were called hibakusha, literally “explosion-affected people.” Those recognized by the Japanese government as hibakusha receive government support, including monthly payments and care for the myriad radiation related diseased affecting those who survived the horrors of atomic bombing.
In the immediate aftermath of the world’s only atomic bombings, though, no one knew the horrific effects radiation would have on survivors. The twin traumas of the new and horrific weapons and the Japanese surrender had left the nation reeling. Yamaguchi briefly contemplated killing himself and his family with sleeping pills, so great was his distress, but he eventually overcame the urge and bore the unbearable with the rest of his countrymen. He worked as a teacher for the American authorities, before eventually returning to Mitsubishi. He also began to speak about his experiences as a double survivor –although he was only officially recognized as such in March 2006– and used his story to advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He appeared in television shows, held talks, and even wrote songs to get his message out.
The bombs were not done taking from Yamaguchi, though. His son died of cancer at age 59. Yamaguchi himself would succumb to stomach cancer January 4, 2010.
“Man who survived 2 atom bombs dies.” CNN.com. CNN. April 11, 2014. <www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/01/06/japan.baomb.victim.dies/>
McCurry, justin. “A little deaf in one ear — meet the Japanese man who survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” TheGuardian.com. March 24, 2009. The Guardian. April 11, 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/25/hiroshima-nagasaki-survivor-japan>
“Tsutomu Yamaguchi.” Telegraph.co.uk. January 6, 2010. The Telegraph. April 11, 2014. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/6943088/Tsutomu-Yamaguchi.html>