The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945, was the first and last time in history that humanity released the full power of the atomic bomb upon a populated city. This momentous event resulted in the deaths of around 200,000 people, although estimates vary.
Surviving through the detonation of one of these doomsday devices must have been horrifying enough as it is, but what about living through the detonation of both? 山口彊 (Anglicised: Tsutomu Yamaguchi) would be unfortunate enough to experience this nightmare.
Fat Man and Little Boy
The production of Fat Man and Little Boy (the names given to the two atomic bombs dropped on August 9 and 6, respectively) was the result of 3 years of atomic research done by Robert Oppenheimer and his team as part of the Manhattan Project, the American initiative to create the first atomic bomb.
Although not initially considered, the atomic bomb slowly started to become a more favorable option to placate the stubborn Japanese. After months of fighting in the Pacific theatre, the Empire of the Rising Sun showed little sign of giving up. In Japanese culture, surrender was seen as a dishonorable act; thus, the resistance to the American takeover of the Pacific was fierce.
To many of the men, part of the Japanese army dying for your country was seen as a much better option than giving in to the enemy. Preserving both one’s honor and the honor of your bloodline was and still is a key part of Japanese culture thus, getting Japan to capitulate would not be easy.
Rather than go ahead with Operation Downfall (the planned allied invasion of Japan), which was estimated to result in 6,000,000 casualties for the allied side, the US decided that victory could be achieved by the use of their newly developed bomb.
The target cities were chosen from a list of 5, which at first included the temporary capital Kyoto but due to opposition from both Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, and President Truman, the city was removed. Truman later commented on this decision, saying:
“Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one.” — President Truman
Kyoto was replaced by Nagasaki on the list due to its military significance, especially for the Japanese navy. After this change, the shortlist of the potential target cities was: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki.
A business trip gone wrong
Tsutomu Yamaguchi lived and worked in Nagasaki, but it just happened that in the summer of 1945, he was sent to Hiroshima on a business trip. His trip would come to an end on August 6 when he was recalled by Mitsubishi, his employer, he had to go back home.
Yamaguchi was on his way to the dock of Nagasaki when he saw the Enola Gay (the plane which carried the Little Boy bomb) fly above the city. The plane dropped the bomb just above the city center, 3km away from Yamaguchi. The parachute on the bombs deployed shortly after its release, then a flash turned the sky white. The flash and the shockwave did a lot of damage leaving Yamaguchi temporarily blind, burnt, and with popped eardrums.
After dragging himself to a nearby shelter, he nursed his wounds and spent the night there. The next day he traveled to the Nagasaki train station, which was still functional, and minimally damaged by the nuclear blast, where he boarded a train to his hometown of Hiroshima.
In Hiroshima, he visited a local hospital to get himself patched up, after which he went home and rested, happy that he didn’t perish in the blast and could see his family again. Despite his close scrape with death, Yamaguchi decided to get up early on the 9th and head to work, a move which embodies the Japanese work ethic. During his debrief, the second bomb was dropped on the town, like the other bomb, only around 3km from the Mitsubishi offices where he worked. Yamaguchi was minimally hurt by the blast but wasn’t aware of the silent killer the bomb released, radiation.
The radiation he was exposed to took its toll early on, leaving Yamaguchi ill as well as leading to large parts of his hair falling out. Surprisingly he made a full recovery and lived to the age of 93 despite his exposure to such a large dose of radiation.
Although it is likely that at least a few other citizens of Japan experienced a similar nightmare, Yamaguchi is the only one officially recognized by the Japanese government as being present at both explosions and surviving. To this day, Yamaguchi is the only recorded case that we have of a human surviving the blast of two atomic bombs.
After his experience with the bombs, Yamaguchi became a staunch proponent of nuclear disarmament. In an interview done shortly before his death, he stated.
“The reason that I hate the atomic bomb is because of what it does to the dignity of human beings. I can’t understand why the world cannot understand the agony of the nuclear bombs. How can they keep developing these weapons?” — Tsutomu Yamaguchi