Tsutomu Yamaguchi: The Atomic Man

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima – Hiromichi Matsuda

August of 1945 marked grim days of apprehension for many cities across Japan. The Japanese people were running dangerously low on resources and manpower to continue the conflict of World War II, while the United States had steadily increased the frequency of air raids on the Japanese mainland islands. In spite of being desperate, the Japanese people couldn’t admit surrender without assurance that their emperor, whom they regarded as a godlike idol, would not be disposed of—a condition that the Americans would not entertain. Meanwhile, the United States public was sour on the idea of sending additional troops into the Pacific for what would surely be a costly land invasion of the Japanese mainland.1 The ongoing aerial raid campaign, which would claim hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives, wounding countless others, and decimating if not entirely leveling cities, would not be enough to provoke an unconditional surrender on behalf of the Japanese people.2 Alas, President Truman, as well as the American people, were in search of resolution to their Pacific conflict. Japan and the whole world alike were aghast as the U.S. unleashed the first ever atomic bombs on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 8th of August, respectively. But, perhaps, no one would be quite as appalled as Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who would endure and witness both atomic demonstrations.

In early June, Tsutomu was called away from his home in Nagasaki to help oversee the design and manufacture of battleships and fuel transports at a shipyard in Hiroshima. Due to the U.S. naval fleet blockading the region, the Japanese were forced to produce half-sized vessels. It wasn’t until being separated from his wife and 3-year-old son that Tsutomu experienced his first major encounter with the encroaching enemy. While stationed in the Hiroshima shipyard dormitory, he observed the vast and overwhelming hundreds of planes enlisted in the strategic raids against Japan. However, the raid would shy in comparison to what was to come.3

On August 5, the day before Hiroshima was to be bombed, the business objectives at the Mitsubishi Shipyard in Hiroshima were complete; however, damage to Japanese infrastructure back in Nagasaki delayed the young worker’s return. It wasn’t until the following day that Tsutomu was given the go ahead to come back home. On his way to the train station on the edge of town, he realized he had left his travel stamp and ID behind. Forced to return to retrieve those items, Tsutomu headed back to his camp. While passing by a shooting gallery, he heard the faint roar of a distant B-29 bomber. Tsutomu looked to the clouds, but caught no glances of the aircraft. Instead, he saw a slowly falling pair of parachutes. Boom! There was a blinding flash followed by a wave of immense heat. He was hurled into a neighboring potato patch. When he regained consciousness, he found his hair fused into his scalp and severe burns seared along his left arm, upper torso, and face.4 Though many other victims would be encountered throughout Tsutomu’s journey home—baring injuries that varied from burns and abrasions to lacerations and radiation exposure—countless others would die in the infernos and blazes that chained through any remains of the sprawling metropolis. Tsutomu Yamaguchi managed to escape the fallout and evacuate on a train bound for Nagasaki. There he was reunited with his family and received treatment from a generous acquaintance from his past. But he was not in the clear just yet.5

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from B-29.

During his business trip, the Japanese began relocating the residents of Nagasaki to the rural outskirts. Strangely enough, Tsutomu and his family were moved to the most dangerous part, just outside the Nagasaki Shipyard. Mere minutes before the second atomic bomb was dropped, with little options at his disposal, Tsutomu reported in for work. His boss called him in to inquire about the events that took place; Tsutomu spoke of a single bomb causing tremendous devastation. During the discussion, a familiar flash pierced their retinas. Yet again, he’d come face to face with the atomic adversary that was wreaking havoc on the Japanese people. But his fight wouldn’t be stopped there.6

He and his family survived the ordeal and after the war, Tsutomu made use of his license to teach English at a junior high school. After ten years of teaching, he returned to Mitsubishi Shipyard and retired. With time, Tsutomu would officially become recognized, by both the United States and Japan, as having survived both atomic bombs, earning him the title “nijū hibakusha” (or twice-bombed man).7 He would go on to use his recognition and experience to advocate for the abolishing of nuclear arsenals. Tsutomu realized that nuclear arms wouldn’t lessen the price humanity pays for its wars; to the contrary, it would merely accelerate and facilitate its own destruction.8

View of the Mitsubishi Torpedo Plant in Nagasaki, following the atomic bomb explosion.
  1. Henry Lewis Stimson, “The decision to use the atomic bomb,” Harper’s Magazine (February, 1947): 97-107, www.harpers.org/archive/1947/02/
  2. Jonathan Rauch, “Firebombs Over Tokyo The Atlantic,” The Atlantic 272, no., 5 (2002): 1-1, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/07/firebombs-over-tokyo/302547/.
  3. Tsutomu Yamaguchi et al., Double A-Bomb Victim: My Life beneath the Atomic Clouds (Nagasaki Prefecture: Department of Political Science, Faculty of Education, Nagasaki University, 2013), 88-90.
  4. Charles Pellegrind, The Last Train From Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2010), 15-17.
  5. Twice, directed by Hidetaka Inazuka, 2011, Netflix. www.netflix.com/title/80208212; Tsutomu Yamaguchi et al., Double A-Bomb Victim: My Life beneath the Atomic Clouds (Nagasaki Prefecture: Department of Political Science, Faculty of Education, Nagasaki University, 2013), 93-94.
  6. Tsutomu Yamaguchi et al., Double A-Bomb Victim: My Life beneath the Atomic Clouds (Nagasaki Prefecture: Department of Political Science, Faculty of Education, Nagasaki University, 2013), 106-107.
  7. The Associated Press, Survivor of Both A-Bombs Is Certified (Manhattan: New York Times, 2009).
  8. Tsutomu Yamaguchi et al., Double A-Bomb Victim: My Life beneath the Atomic Clouds (Nagasaki Prefecture: Department of Political Science, Faculty of Education, Nagasaki University, 2013), 110.

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This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. I liked the article because it left me speechless multiple times, just completely wide eyed. It almost reminded me of final destination because it seemed as if they should have died but somehow survived multiple encounters with death. I liked the articles pictures and I was actually drawn to the article when I saw the title. Very good and interesting article as a whole.

  2. This story is so eerie, and it reminds me of when my dad told me that everyone has a designated time where they’ll die. It’s chilling this man cheated death not once, but two times. It surprises me that anyone was even able to survive the bombings, and it makes me think about how lucky some people really are. Still,these bombings were tragic and sad, and they were completely unnecessary.

  3. I remember learning about the atomic bomb attacks the US had on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in high school, and remember how heartbreaking it was to read about the casualties about the attacks. I had not known that there was someone who coincidentally survived both attacks. I am truly inspired by him not giving up after experiencing such a traumatic experience back to back, as he used his experience not to bring him down but to fight. He is quite the admirable man.

  4. This is a very chilling story. The idea that a person would be present for and survive not one but two attacks via atomic bomb is both incredible and horrifying to consider. Despite this, the story presented is still a fascinating one and it is told very well, and the information regarding Tsutomu’s subsequent recognition and activism is not only interesting, but important, and something that should be more widely known.

  5. Mariah Cavanaugh

    I can name so many times when I have forgotten something and had to go back for it. The thought that a seemingly minor inconvenience could lead to such massive devastation is horrifying! This poor man must have felt as if he had a target on his back, yet he continued to fight. This story although heartbreaking was truly inspirational.

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