Atomic Odds: Surviving Two Nuclear Blasts

In 1945, Tsutomu Yamaguchi of Nagasaki, Japan was a technical draftsman designing oil tankers for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Early that year his wife gave birth to their first child, a son, but what should have been a joyous occasion brought Yamaguchi a deep sense of dread. In May, Germany surrendered to the Allies and the focus of the war shifted to the Pacific. From his work at Mitsubishi, Yamaguchi knew Japan was running short of oil, iron and steel—the strategic materials needed to keep fighting. According to an interview he gave to London’s Times Magazine 60 years later, Yamaguchi was afraid his country would soon be invaded, and he brooded over what would happen to his young family. He considered giving his wife and baby an overdose of sleeping pills rather than expose them to the enemy.

His fears intensified that spring when he and two colleagues, Akira Iwanaga and Kuniyoshi Sato, were ordered to leave their homes and spend several months working at a company shipyard in Hiroshima, a city of around 350,000 people, nearly 200 miles away. Early in August their stint was finally done, and the three men were scheduled to return home August 7th. Around 8:15 the morning before, Yamaguchi heard the sound of a plane overhead, glanced up at a clear sky and saw a B-29 bomber followed by a flash of blinding light. Then everything went dark and he was blown to the ground.

The United States had just dropped the world’s first atomic bomb. Tens of thousands of people were killed instantly; eventually the toll would rise to over 130,000. Yamaguchi was badly burned on his face and arms, but he was alive, and miraculously so were both of his colleagues. The odds a person who was physically present in Hiroshima survived the bombing as of November 1945 are 1 in 1.6 (62.5%).

The next day, through scenes of indescribable carnage and human suffering, the men made their way to Nishi-Hiroshima, a station west of town which had an overnight train operating to Nagasaki. As soon as it arrived, Yamaguchi went to the hospital to have his injuries treated. On August 9th, Yamaguchi reported for work at Mitsubishi, so covered in bandages only his lips, nose and eyes were visible. At 11:01 am, he was in the office of his manager explaining how he had almost died three days before when there was another blinding flash, followed by an implosion and mushroom cloud. The United States had just dropped a second atomic bomb; an estimated 40,000 people were killed instantly, and 60,000 were injured.

All the bandages were blown off Yamaguchi’s body, and the office was engulfed in heat. And yet once again he was alive. The odds a person physically present during the Nagasaki bombing survived as of November 1945 are 1 in 2.63.

In Japan, someone who survived the atomic bomb either in Hiroshima or Nagasaki is called a Hibakusha. In March, 2009, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, now 93 years old, became the first person to be officially recognized as a survivor of both bombings—a “double Hibakusha.” The estimate most often given for the total number of people who were exposed to both blasts is 163, but that number is most likely an understatement. According to Hideo Nakamura, producer of the documentary Twice Bombed, Twice Survived, on the day after the Hiroshima bombing there were a few evacuation trains from the Nishi-Hiroshima station to Nagasaki, including the one taken by Yamaguchi and his colleagues. The trains made a few stops before arriving in Nagasaki, but even if a number of people had gotten off sooner, there is the tragic possibility that a few hundred made it to Nagasaki before the morning of August 9th. We will never know exactly how many survived the horror of Hiroshima, only to be killed or grievously injured three days later in Nagasaki. What is known is that there were at least nine, including Yamaguchi, within the blast zone in both cities.

When the film was screened at the United Nations in 2006, Yamaguchi, confined to a wheelchair, traveled from Japan in order to make a personal appeal for the abolition of all nuclear arms. Now suffering from cancer, a disease which took his wife and son along with thousands of other blast survivors, in July of this year Yamaguchi repeated his appeal in a letter to President Barack Obama.

On October 11, 2009, the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki announced a joint bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Both are founding members of Mayors for Peace 2020 Vision Campaign, an organization dedicated to fulfilling the pleas of survivors like Tsutomu Yamaguchi that the world never again engage in such massive destruction. The goal of the organization—and the foundation of their Olympic bid—is the abolition of all nuclear weapons by the year 2020. The celebration of such an accomplishment, they believe, should take place in the same two cities which saw two of the world’s darkest days.

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