He was away on a business trip, and after three long months, he was happy to be finally going home. To be with his wife and his six month old baby. To sleep in his own bed. To eat home cooking. To be back in his office.
He, and two of his co-workers, set out for the train station, but then he remembered that he had left something behind, so he turned and headed back to the shipyard, where he had been working as a draftsman, designing oil tankers.
It was 8:15 a.m. on a clear August morning, and he later would remember being in good spirits when he heard the sound of a plane. He looked up, saw a blinding flash in the sky, followed by a deafening boom, and then he was blown over and knocked unconscious. When Tsutomu Yamaguchi woke up, 70,000 people were dead, another 70,000 lay dying, and 60,000 buildings had been turned into rubble.
The sky was black, “except,” said Yamaguchi, “for a huge mushroom-shaped pillar of fire rising high in the sky. It was like a tornado, although it did not move, but it rose and spread out horizontally at the top. There was a prismatic light, which was changing in a complicated rhythm, like the patterns of a kaleidoscope.”
Because the sky had been clear, providing perfect visibility, a specially modified B-29, affectionately named the Enola Gay, after the pilot’s mother, was able to drop a single bomb, ironically nicknamed Little Boy, on the city of Hiroshima. The bomb, which contained the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT, took 43 seconds to fall to the point of detonation.
The mushroom cloud was estimated to have reached a height of 40,000 feet. Two other bombers, carrying cameras and measuring devices recorded the damage and gathered data. While Allied planes had systematically bombed 67 Japanese cities, Hiroshima had been intentionally left untouched, making it not just a strategic target, but a perfect laboratory for this hellish experiment.
Yamaguchi picked himself up off the ground and made his way through a devastation he could not comprehend to a bomb shelter where he spent the night. He had lost some of his hearing and he had some bad burns on one side of his body, but he was remarkably intact. The next day, he made his way back to the shipyard, found his two co-workers, and the three men boarded a train for home.
After the war, Yamaguchi worked as a translator for U.S. occupation forces. He never believed that Japan should have attacked Pearl Harbor. He never expressed anti-American sentiments. Perhaps he believed, as many did, that in bringing an immediate end to the war, the atomic bomb had actually saved more lives than it stole.
Later he went back to work for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, trying to pick up where his life had left off. He lived quietly and anonymously for decades, until his son died of stomach cancer at the age of 59, most likely caused by radiation exposure. Then, Yamaguchi became an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons.
Remarkably, Tsutomu Yamaguchi died at the ripe old age of 93.
Remarkable indeed, because, that day when Tsutomu Yamaguchi took the train out of Hiroshima, he was headed home to the city of Nagasaki.
On August 9th, three days after the attack on Hiroshima, a heavily bandaged Yamaguchi reported to work. The news of Hiroshima had not arrived ahead of him. The bomb had taken out virtually all communications networks, so at least temporarily, what had happened to Hiroshima had stayed in Hiroshima.
He told his boss what had happened and his boss did not believe him. A single bomb could not possibly have destroyed a city the size of Hiroshima. He looked at the injured Yamaguchi and accused him of speaking nonsense.
Yamaguchi was stubbornly sticking to his story, when in the sky above them, at 11:03 a.m., the B-29, named Bockscar dropped the bomb, nicknamed Fat Man. Once again, the blinding flash, the deafening boom, and Yamaguchi was knocked to the ground. The explosion generated heat of 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit and winds of 624 miles per hour.
By the time he came to his senses and got to his feet, the black sky, the prismatic mushroom cloud, and the rest of his atomic nightmare had found him again. He rushed home and found his wife and child miraculously unhurt.
In 1954, Japanese film director Ishiro Honda created a monster, named Godzilla. He had the head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, crocodile-like skin, and stood erect. He was taller than most skyscrapers and he breathed fire -- atomic fire. He could live under water, as easily as on land, and when he decided to climb out of the ocean and stomp on Tokyo, there was no escaping him. His enormous feet crushed people like they were ants and cars and buildings like they were toys. Those who managed to get out of range would be incinerated by his flames.
Godzilla was born from the radiation spread by Little Boy and Fat Man, and the monster became their metaphor. To most Japanese, the death and destruction caused by two bombs was incomprehensible. They badly needed a monster they could actually see.
About 165 people are known to have survived both bombs. They needed no metaphor. At age 89, the death of his 59-year old son prompted Yamaguchi to finally tell his story. Why was he spared, when so many others were not? “Having been granted a miracle,” he said, “it is my responsibility to pass on the truth to the people of the world.” So, he lobbied the Japanese government for official recognition of being a survivor of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He had to battle the bureaucracy to get it, but he eventually prevailed. Being the only officially recognized double survivor gave him a platform from which to make his plea for nuclear disarmament.
On March 11, 2011, the newest Godzilla climbed out the ocean and began stomping on Japan. It is gone now, but its devastation and its atomic breath remain.
Tsutomu Yamaguchi died on January 4, 2010.
I am glad he missed it. I think he had seen quite enough.