Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Man Who Knew Godzilla

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.



  1. An amazing story.

    I had heard an anecdote about the man who witnessed and survived both nuclear attacks but I had never before known any further details. Such a waste of life, I don't know how any nation can ever justify such a mass destruction and killing of civilians. Again, great story.

  2. Brilliant, positively brilliant, my friend. Having been to Hiroshima a few times, I have seen what they have done to preserve what's left from that time. The Industrial Promotion Hall remains, a twisted wreck, in the middle of the Peace Park. After the bombing, it is said that Hiroshima remained in ruins, in ashes, until the mid 1950's. I agree with you, Yamaguchi-san had seen quite enough. EFH

  3. Well done.
    I am glad he missed it too.

  4. Your posts are so few, and far between, Bruce, but they always grab my attention. You are, indeed, a naturally gifted writer.

  5. An amazing story, beautifully told. Well done as always, Bruce.

  6. His luck was incredible, and so is your writing. You told the story in such an interesting way I almost wished we didn't drop the monsters on them. However, I do wish we dropped the bomb a few years earlier, then maybe the atrocity the Japanese government and soldiers committed in China might have been averted. ( To date they are still trying to change their history books to cover the facts. I feel like a heartless person when I say it's really hard for me to feel sympathetic for those atomic bomb victims. I do hope we never, ever have to go down that route again.

  7. Enjoyed that, in a melancholy kind of way. Shared it on Facebook, too. Would be good if more people, more often, remembered the horrors we inflict upon each other. Perhaps one day it might sicken us enough to make us stop. Thanks for this piece. Nice work.

  8. Moving story. Absolutely amazing.
    Your story telling holds my attention deficit mind.

  9. Brilliant. Anytime I'm feeling like the news is just a big bunch of advertising, I can come here, read this blog and actually get some REAL information. For that, I'm truly indebted to you.

  10. An amazing story. I went to Hiroshima in 2003. The effects of the bomb are still alive in the minds of the people there. Buildings have been left in the same state of ruin, often you may see shadows of people on these broken walls. Bodies disintegrated and a shadow remaining as a last sign that a man once stood there. It was a very emotional trip. I am glad Yamaguchi missed the most recent disaster.

  11. Wonderfully written and timely story. I, too, am glad he didn't live to see the latest catastrophe. But at least this time the killing wasn't intentional killing of one group of human beings by another group.

  12. coltin, i know i've stopped by before and read your writing and it truly is wonderful.

    i am now following so i won't miss another.

    and thank you for your sweet words. i can always handle receiving praise :) xo

  13. What a powerful story and your writing is wonderful. Thank you for this and I think it was best that he didn't have to witness the latest tragedy. I know wild burros can kill a mountain lion and I know they don't like dogs much. So better keep your kitty safe with you.--Inger

  14. Wow. This is such a powerful story, I have to spend some time thinking about it today. Those bombs were such a low for our country that I can barely think about it. My father, who is gone now, always believed they were necessary to end the war, but I could never agree with him. He carried bitterness for WWII. We had neighbors across the street when I was growing up who named their daughter Enola Gay. I can only guess that she had it changed as an adult.

  15. Bruce, this was a powerful story sensitively told. Godzilla just keeps raising his ugly head, doesn't he! Thanks for a wonderful new post, Bruce. I love reading your blog.

  16. Bruce, you are such a damned fine writer. Great tale, well told.

    By the way, thank you for the kind words. You left some at my place, and also elsewhere, and they are greatly appreciated.

  17. This was a most excellent post, and I'm glad I found it - and even glad that I got to it late. I was in Tokyo on 11 March this year. The experience of the major quakes and all the aftershocks was quite terrifying, and the aftermath war of emotions I've been battling - ranging from admiration for the Japanese way of handling it, to guilt for eventually leaving, even though my presence certainly did nothing to help Japan. After having gotten some distance to the experience I am now able to appreciate this story. I agree with you. Yamaguchi-san certainly deserved to be spared of Godzilla's recent visit. I can only hope that the monster will stay away from Japan for a while now. The rest of them also deserve peace.

  18. An interesting post. It resonated particularly as I have recently been listening to Sarah Kay's spoken word poetry - one in particular titled Hiroshima. Although we cannot go back and change actions, we cannot afford to forget them and the consequences we now face as a result.

    Many thanks for the thought provoking writing.

  19. Wow, Bruce. What an amazing story. I love hearing stuff like this. It just reminds you of everything that tiny little island has been through over the years. Sometimes you really do forget. If only for a little while. Terrific post, Bruce. Sorry it's taken me so long to comment on it. :)

  20. What an amazing story of strength and determination. Very inspiring and timely. Thanks for writing this piece, Bruce. It has truly touched me.

  21. Bruce, I have come late to this powerful story, but better that than to have missed it entirely. This is the first I have heard of such a double survivor, and I'm grateful that you wrote his story in your usual eloquent, excellent way. I always appreciate what you write about, and a large part of my pleasure comes from how you do it.
    Your topics are always very relevant things - never fluff. They leave a deep impression, long afterwards.

  22. Heehee! This was truly interesting. Maybe not amazing-- although it is pretty amazing that he survived both, but I loved that you tied Godzilla in there. Stereotypes always tickle me. But what tickled me the most is your ability to make light of a situation without making it seem deliberate and cruel. I have to admit to chuckling a bit. Good show old bean. I think I may just follow your blog.

  23. This had me teleported to the time when the giant mushroom grew. Natural flow of narration!. How would the feeling be, when been hit by an ATOM bomb second time!! It is indeed a fairy tale and he lived long to share it, but this ain't one which has angels and flowers around!! Your words casted spells!! Keep goin!!

  24. I feel I am a bit late in reading this but I haven't been following many blogs as late, too busy on my own.

    This man's experience could have been so negative and yet he turned it into a positive one. I would be interested to learn how successful his efforts were on nuclear disarmament. The power of perspective never ceases to amaze me.

    Whether the bombs should have been dropped is not really a debate for his story. That they were dropped and he survived both and still lobbied for peace is more the point. It would be easy for someone in this situation to chose hate. They are then becoming the monster they need to fear. You could almost say Yamaguchi tamed Godzilla.

    Thank you for the informative story Coltin :)

  25. Nicely written, thought provoking...


So, what do YOU think?