31 May


  Tsutomu Yamaguchi in 2009. Image from wikipedia.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi was a 29 year old Naval Engineer who worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. He and his fellow workers Akira Iwanaga and Kuniyoshi Sato were in Hiroshima for three months on a business trip and worked long hours throughout the summer on a design of a new oil tanker. On August 6, 1945, 8:15 a.m. the three men were about to leave Hiroshima to go home, then Yamaguchi realized he forgot his hanko (a stamp that allows you to travel) and he walked back to the company’s shipyard. As he was walking along the dock, he heard an aircraft engine and looked up to see a B-29 Super-fortress and then two parachutes. Seconds later, a bright flash of light, which Yamaguchi described as “the lightning of a huge magnesium flare”, followed by a tremendous boom. The shock-wave that followed picked him up in the air and hurtled him into a nearby potato patch ditch. He was less than two miles away from ground zero and his left side of the top half of his body, and his face and arms were severely burned, his eardrums were ruptured and he was temporarily blinded.

“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.” Quote by Tsutomu Yamaguchi from The Times

When Yamaguchi woke up, he woke up to nightmarish scene. the atomic bomb created dust and a heavy shower of black radioactive ash blocked out the sun and of course, the gigantic mushroom cloud. Everywhere around Yamaguchi, there were still burning flames, the skeletons of buildings, and burned or melted bodies. He managed to stand up and wandered around the remains of the Mitsubishi Shipyard. He soon found his colleagues Akira and Kuniyoshi who also survived the blast. Together, the three men spent a restless night in an air raid shelter. The next day, August 7, they heard the train station was somehow still operable and headed for it. All the bridges were reduced to heaps of melted and twisted metal and the rivers were filled with carbonized bodies. Yamaguchi used the bodies as rafts and paddled his way to the other side. By now, the world for the first time, heard of the news from President Harry Truman’s announcement of an atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” was dropped over Hiroshima from the B-29 “Enola Gay.”


Hiroshima. The photo was probably taken in September 1945. Image from www.boston.com

On August 8, Yamaguchi made it to Nagasaki and went to a hospital.  The doctor, who used to be a classmate, didn’t recognize him at first and neither did Yamaguchi’s wife Hisako or his son Katsutoshi. Despite being feverish and heavily bandaged, Yamaguchi got out of bed the next day to report for work at Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki office. At 11:00 a.m., the director wanted to talk to Yamaguchi about what happened in Hiroshima. As Yamaguchi explained the flash of light, the tremendous boom and the destruction it caused, the director accused him of being crazy, after all, how is it possible for one bomb to destroy a city? It’s something unheard of before. Yamaguchi tried to explain but a familiar white flash appeared. This time, Yamaguchi ducked to the floor just seconds before the shock-wave sent broken glass and furniture across the room. This atomic bomb was dropped by the B-29 “Bockscar” and was named “Fat Man.” It was even more powerful than “Little Boy” but thanks to the city’s hilly terrain,the damage was less severe. Yamaguchi’s bandages were blown off him and was relatively unhurt but he also got a double dose of radiation. 

 He managed to go to his house which was destroyed by the shock-wave and was amazed that his wife and son were still alive. They have been out looking for burn ointments and they managed to take shelter in a nearby tunnel. For the next few days, Yamaguchi’s hair fell off, his arms turned gangrenous and he was vomiting constantly. At the same time, the family and so many others stayed in a bomb shelter and on August 15, Emperor Hirohito, the first time he talked publicly by radio, announced the surrender of Nippon. Yamaguchi later told to The Times. “I had no feeling about it, 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.”


Nagasaki. This photo was taken on September 8. The man shown here is Dr. Nagai an X-Ray specialist and instructor.

He died a few days later from the effects of radiation. Image from www.History.com

Unlike so many of the other survivors, Yamaguchi recovered slowly and returned to a somewhat normal life but he was troubled by many health problems for the rest of his life as well as his wife and son. During the U.S. occupation of japan, he worked as a translator for the allies stationed there, taught at school for a time and eventually returned to his job at Mitsubishi. In the early 1950's, Yamaguchi and Hisako had two more girls (Toshiko and Naoko) who also suffered from a few health problems. Yamaguchi had to deal with the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and dealt with it by writing poetry. He did not talk about it until 2005 to The Times. He joined the anti-atomic weapons movement and in 2006, he went to New York to speak about the disarmament of nuclear weapons to the United Nations. As part of his speech he said; “Having experienced the atomic bombings twice and survived, it is my destiny to talk about it.” In 2009, Yamaguchi was officially recognized by the government of Japan as a “Nijyuu Hibakusha”  meaning (twice-bombed person), but he was actually only one out of 150-165 others, including Akira and Kuniyoshi, as well as a man named Shigeyoshi Morimoto, a kite builder, was only half a mile from ground zero at Hiroshima. On January 4, 2010, Tsutomu Yamagachi died of stomach cancer at the age of 93. His wife also died in 2010 from Kidney and Liver Cancer.

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