It’s a summer morning in Hiroshima, Japan, and Tsutomu Yamaguchi is trying to get home. As he steps off a tram and sets off towards the docks, a bright white light explodes across the sky. Suddenly, the world goes silent and dark. Despite suffering horrific burns on one side of his body, Yamaguchi survives. However, little does he know the terrifying twist that fate has in store.
In summer 1945, 29-year-old Yamaguchi traveled from his home in Nagasaki, Japan, to Hiroshima, some 260 miles away. He had a job designing oil tankers for Mitsibushi Heavy Industries, and was assigned on a business trip lasting three months.
On August 6, Yamaguchi’s business trip ended and he was getting ready to make the journey back home to Nagasaki. Initially, he was in the company of two colleagues. However, they parted ways when Yamaguchi returned to collect a forgotten travel document from their workplace.
Just after 8:00 a.m., Yamaguchi was walking in the direction of the city docks. That was when he spotted an airplane in the sky; the U.S. Air Force’s B-29 bomber Enola Gay. And it was about to unleash unimaginable havoc on Hiroshima in the form of an atomic bomb called Little Boy.
Three months earlier, World War II had ended in Europe with Adolf Hitler’s suicide and the surrender of Nazi Germany. However, the Pacific War between the Allied forces and Japan continued, with the latter refusing the Allies’ terms of surrender, despite threats.
So on July 25, 1945, orders were issued to drop the U.S.’ newly developed atomic bombs on major Japanese cities, with the aim of forcing Japan to surrender. As a location of military and manufacturing importance, Hiroshima was consequently identified as the perfect target.
Then, on August 6, Little Boy detonated in the sky some 2,000 feet above the city. In the carnage caused by the blast, 66,000 people lost their lives – including 20,000 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. Furthermore, almost 70,000 were injured by the bomb.
That morning, Yamaguchi recalled seeing two parachutes drop through the sky before all hell broke loose. “I was looking up into the sky at them,” he said in a 2009 interview with The Times, “and suddenly… it was like a flash of magnesium, a great flash in the sky, and I was blown over.”
Yamaguchi had been walking just two miles from the center of the blast. Temporarily blinded by the explosion, he remembered seeing his life flash before his eyes. Initially, in fact, he thought that he might be dead.
Yamaguchi’s vision cleared just in time for him to see a menacing-looking mushroom cloud rising from the city center. Knowing that he needed to move in order to have any hope of surviving, he managed to flee to a nearby bomb shelter. It was only when he reached it that he realized just how badly he had been injured.
The explosion had ruptured Yamaguchi’s eardrums and left him with serious burns on his face and arms. Miraculously, he was able to locate his colleagues in the horrific explosion’s aftermath. Then, the trio navigated their way through a city filled with the dead and the dying before catching a Nagasaki-bound train.
Once home, Yamaguchi went to hospital, where his burns were treated. Despite being covered in bandages, he turned up for work on the morning of August 9 – just three days after the nuclear blast had flattened much of Hiroshima.
In the intervening days, Allied forces deemed the bombing a success. However, despite witnessing the destruction wreaked on Hiroshima, the Japanese government continued to reject the Allies’ terms of surrender and instead opted to continue the war.
When Yamaguchi returned to his place of work in Nagasaki, his director was incredulous about his account of what had happened in Hiroshima. “A single bomb can’t destroy a whole city,” Yamaguchi recalled him as saying in his interview with The Times. “You’ve obviously been badly injured, and I think you’ve gone a little mad.”
However, as if on cue, the same blinding light that Yamaguchi witnessed just days earlier suddenly burst through the office. A second atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan, and this time the city of Nagasaki was its target. Although estimates of the death toll vary, between 40,000 and 80,000 people lost their lives that day. Again, Yamaguchi was just two miles from the center of the blast.
Yamaguchi was thrown to the ground; then, he escaped through a window and returned home to his baby son and wife. Although unharmed, the family was forced to spend the next week hiding in a shelter, fearful of what awaited outside. “I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima,” Yamaguchi said in a 2009 interview with the Independent.
Eventually, the unimaginable scale of the massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved too great for Japan. On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender, a decision that was formalized a few weeks later on September 2.
As the Japanese government and imperial family came to terms with the conditions of their surrender, the country’s everyday citizens were left with different battles to face. Around 260,000 people had survived the attacks on their cities, and many of them were forced to live with painful side effects.
Yamaguchi himself needed to wear bandages for years, while his wife was poisoned by the radioactive rainfall that occurred in Nagasaki after the explosion. The couple’s son died aged 59 from cancer, while their two daughters have experienced health problems throughout their lives.
Although Yamaguchi received official recognition as a survivor of Nagasaki back in 1957, it wasn’t until March 2009 that the Japanese government recognized him as having survived Hiroshima, too – making him the only double hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivor – in official records. Today, Yamaguchi speaks out against nuclear weapons in the hope that neither he nor anyone else will have to endure their horrific effects again.