Tsutomu Yamaguchi: The Man Who Survived Two Atomic Bombs

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Podcast Transcript

There were millions of stories that came out of the second world war. 

However, there were none like that of Tsutomu Yamaguchi. On August 6, 1945, he survived an event that no one in world history had encountered before. 

Just three days later, he had the misfortune of having to go through it again. 

Learn more about Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the man who survived not one but two atomic bombs, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of the biggest events of the 20th century. 

They simultaneously ended the world’s most horrific war, entered the world into an era of nuclear weapons, and, lest we forget, killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 130,000 to 226,000 people. 

The story of the decision to use these weapons is for another episode. In this episode, I want to focus on the story of a single individual. A man who was one of the very few to have experienced the horrors of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki firsthand. 

Tsutomu Yamaguchi was born in Nagasaki in 1916. He was the middle of five children born into a farming family. However, he showed great aptitude and was admitted to the Mukaiyama National School in Nagasaki and then entered Nagasaki Technical College, where he studied naval engineering. 

After graduation, he got a job with Mitsubishi Industries designing ships. 

He worked for Mitsubishi throughout the war as a ship designer. A position that was able to keep him out of the military during the war. 

In the summer of 1945, he was assigned to work on the development of a new type of oil tanker.  

Early in the summer, he left his wife and infant son in Nagasaki to work on the project in the city of Hiroshima for three months. 

August 6, 1945, was scheduled to be his last day in Hiroshima. He was going to return to his family from who he had been separated. 

He awoke early and made his way to the Hiroshima train station with two of his work colleagues, who were also from Nagasaki. 

However, along the way, Yamaguchi realized that he had forgotten his hanko, which was a type of identification card. 

At 8:15 am, he was walking to his office at the Hiroshima docks when he claimed to have noticed something in the sky.

He saw a single American B-29 bomber flying overhead that dropped something attached to a parachute. 

Just moments later, as he described it, there was “a great flash in the sky, and I was blown over.”

Yamaguchi described the light as if it were a giant magnesium flare. 

The massive burst of light caused him to dive into a nearby ditch for safety, which might have saved his life. Just moments later, he and the surrounding area was hit by a massive shock wave. 

The shockwave was so powerful that it literally picked Yamaguchi up and threw him out of the ditch and into a nearby potato field. 

He passed out for a while, how long he didn’t know, but when he woke up, everything around him had changed. As he described it, “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.”

The reason why there was no sound is that the shock wave had burst both of his ear drums. The reason why he couldn’t see much is because he was temporarily blinded.

There was dirt that was kicked up by the explosion as well as ash falling down everywhere. When he regained his vision, he saw a massive mushroom-shaped cloud growing in the sky.

Moreover, he suffered serious burns on both his face and forearms. 

He had no idea what had happened. What he didn’t realize was the world’s first atomic bomb had been dropped just 1.9 miles, or 3 kilometers away. 

Despite his injuries, he managed to get himself to an air raid shelter located nearby. 

After resting for a bit, he decided to find his colleagues who he was going to travel to Nagasaki with. Surprisingly, he found them both alive. 

The three men made their way to another air raid shelter, where they spent the night with other survivors, still having no clue what had happened to everything around them.

The next morning, August 7, other survivors told the men that, incredibly, the train station was still operating. The two men set off on foot to get to the train station so they could go home to Nagasaki. 

The three men found a city that had been instantly transformed. There was death and destruction all around them. Buildings were gone, and the remains of the dead could be seen everywhere. 

All of the bridges across the rivers in the city had also been destroyed, which proved to be a problem for the men. They would have to swim across the river to get to the train station. 

The river, however, was filled with bodies. Blackened, burnt bodies of men, women, and children, many of whom were stuck together. 

Yamaguchi and his friends swam across the river through the mass of floating dead bodies to get to the other side. It was a horrific memory that stuck with Yamaguchi for the rest of his life. 

By the time they reached the train station, they found that the rumors were true. There were trains that were functioning. They joined the mass of people, most of whom were suffering from burns, and got on the overnight train to Nagasaki. 

When he arrived in Nagasaki on August 8, the first thing he did was go to see a doctor who had been one of his classmates. Yamaguch’s burns were so severe that the doctor at first couldn’t recognize him. 

The doctor treated him and bandaged his wounds, which covered most of the upper half of his body. 

He returned to his family, who, like the doctor, didn’t recognize him at first. 

Yamaguchi’s story of what happened in Hiroshima was news to everyone in Nagasaki. They hadn’t heard anything about it as it hadn’t been reported in detail in the media yet. What mention of it there was said nothing more than there was an American attack on the city. 

For example, the English language newspaper, the Japan Times, published the following short statement in their August 8 edition.

“Hiroshima was attacked by a small number of Superforts at 8:20 a.m. Monday….“The enemy dropped explosives and incendiaries. Damage is now being investigated.”

That was the level of information that most people in Japan had just two or three days after the events in Hiroshima. 

The next morning Thursday, August 9, 1945, despite being barely able to move, Tsutomu Yamaguchi showed up for work. 

His superiors at the Mitshibushi corporation want a report. At 11 am, he found himself in a meeting with a company director trying to explain what had happened in Hiroshima. 

As far as Yamaguchi could tell, there was a single bomb that had instantly destroyed the entire city of Hiroshima. 

His boss thought that he had gone mad. There was no way a single bomb could destroy a city.  When the Americans bombed a city, they had to send dozens to hundreds of bombers, which had to drop hundreds to thousands of bombs. 

A single airplane couldn’t do that.

Just as they were having this argument about how a single bomb couldn’t destroy a city, Tsutomu Yamaguchi saw another massive flash of bright light. 

He threw himself to the ground before the shockwave hit the building, blasting out all of the windows. 

The blast blew Yamaguchi’s bandages off his body. In an odd twist of fate, the position of the building relative to the hills of the city protected much of the structure, and the position of a stairwell in the building protected the office he was in. 

He didn’t know it at the time, but he was, once again, almost exactly 1.9 miles or 3 kilometers from ground zero.

His personal injuries this time were not as severe as what he experienced in Hiroshima simply because of the location where he was when the detonation took place.

His first concern was now his family. He rushed from the Mitisubhi building to check on his wife and child. 

When he came upon his home, he found that much of it had collapsed, and he assumed the worst. However, he found both his wife and child had survived and were taking shelter in a small tunnel.

His wife had been looking for an ointment for Yamaguchi the blast took place. Had she not been in that exact spot, she and her child would probably have been killed. 

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, his wife, and his young child spent the next week in an air raid shelter. 

While his family was fine, he began suffering severe symptoms of radiation sickness. His hair began falling out, he suffered from fevers, the wounds on his arms turned gangrenous, and he was vomiting incessantly. 

On August 15, the people of Japan, for the first time ever, heard the voice of their emperor on the radio as he announced the surrender of Japan. 

Yamaguchi later said, “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.”

Despite the severity of his wounds and his exposure to not one but two atomic bombs, Tsutomu Yamaguchi survived. 

After the war, he took a job as an interpreter during the American occupation of Japan. He then later became a teacher and finally went back to Mitshibushi to the job he originally started with, a nautical engineer working on oil tankers. 

He and his wife went on to have two more daughters, and he never spoke of the dual events he suffered in 1945. 

That was until he eventually did. 

In 1981, he heard Pope John Paul II speak in Hiroshima. Having experienced both atomic bombs, he felt that he should say something. 

However, he felt guilty because by this time, he had fully recovered, whereas there were still people who were very sick from radiation exposure. 

His attitude changed in 2005 when his son died of cancer.  Now in his late 80s, he decided to speak up and to tell his story. 

He published a book of his memoirs and appeared in a documentary called Twice Bombed, Twice Survived.

At the age of 90, he received his first passport and traveled to New York to address the United Nations about the abolishment of nuclear weapons. 

In 1957, the Japanese government recognized survivors of the atomic blasts as Hibakusha. 

The Hibakusha were entitled to free medical care for life. 

In 2009, the Japanese government recognized Tsutomu Yamaguchi as the only double hibakusha. 

In reality, there may have been hundreds of people who survived Hiroshima and managed to get back to Nagasaki. Many of them worked for the Mitshibushi corporation.  Most of those people perished in the second attack just three days later. 

The estimated number of people who may have survived both attacks ranges from 75 to 165. 

Tsutomu Yamaguchi passed away on January 4, 2010, at the age of 93 from stomach cancer. 

While he finally decided to tell his story late in life, he did manage to tell it. 

Tsutomu Yamaguchi had the misfortune of experiencing one of the worst events in world history….twice. 

It was a distinction that very few people in human history can claim and one which hopefully no one ever will again. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Alan Cook Pass Babtridge over on Apple Podcasts in Great Britain. They write:

Knowing everything everywhere, A-ha!!

Gary Arndt is the Alpha Papa of informational podcasting. I listen daily in my Lexus on the way home from my hugely successful late-night FM radio show in the east of England. With his carefully researched, 10min topical breakdowns, I am now armed with many subjects of interest for social situations. With Gary’s help, I can now detect the more subtle aromas at my cheese-smelling classes, understand the simple Geordie at the petrol station, and why my favorite wine is indeed called Blue Nun. 

At the pub, in a battle of anecdotes with my American-born friend and fellow Lexarian Dan, I was able to recount the tale of how strong a drinking culture the Americans had, that even children would be drinking pints of beer throughout the day. Inebriated from only one and a half glasses of a white wine spritzer, Dan fell from his barstool. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Needless to say, I had the last laugh!! Keep up the good work, Gary.

Thanks, Alan! Ladies and gentlemen, you might not realize it, but this review comes from one of the biggest celebrities in England and Norwich’s favorite son, none other than Mr. Alan Partridge! 

Mr. Partridge, I just want to say that I am highly honored that you are a listener of the show. A review like this from a broadcaster of your stature is an honor indeed. 

If you should ever want to guest host an episode of the show, please have yourself or a member of your staff reach out.  We could do an episode on the history of ABBA or the BBC.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, even if you aren’t a major celebrity like Alan Partridge, you too can have it read on the show.