There has only ever been one person who’s been officially recognized to have survived two atom bombs, and his story is remarkable. His name was Tsutomu Yamaguchi.
World War II was a horrific period in human history. It was the bloodiest conflict ever, when some of the worst atrocities were committed against both fighters and civilians. Millions of innocent people died, either as casualties or through systematic extermination, and every front of the war was ultimately terrifying.
Japan was no different. The Japanese were allied to Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, and they are the only country ever to have been attacked with atomic weapons. Twice. In August, 1945, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs over the island, utterly destroying two of its cities and killing more than 200,000 people, most of whom were innocent civilians.
There were many immediate survivors to each of the bombs separately, but there has only ever been one person who’s been officially recognized to have survived both. His name was Tsutomu Yamaguchi.
A business trip in Hiroshima
It was a seemingly normal day on the morning of August 6, 1945, and an unassuming 29-year-old Tsutomu Yamaguchi was walking to work when he realized he had forgotten his hanko (his personal seal). A resident of Nagasaki, Yamaguchi had been sent to Hiroshima on a three-month business trip for his company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. He was tired and desperate to go back to his family, and indeed he and two colleagues were supposed to return to their hometown soon after.
At around 8:15 am, as he strolled back to pick up his seal, Yamaguchi heard a plane circling above the city, and then saw something drop from it. Two small parachutes were visible in the distance, carrying a big object that was slowly making its way towards the ground in the center of the city. Yamaguchi was about 3 km away when suddenly a blinding flash of light went off. The explosion aggressively pushed Yamaguchi back and severely burnt the left side of his upper body. Confused and in pain, with ruptured eardrums and temporarily blind, he managed to crawl into an irrigation ditch before making his way into a shelter for the night.
The next day, still hurt, he looked for and found his colleagues, who had also survived, and struggled to get to the train station. With the bridges completely destroyed, he was forced to swim across a river filled with disfigured corpses of men, women, and children. The devastation was brutal and exhaustive. The city was gone.
Surprisingly, the trains were still functioning, so he succeeded in returning to Nagasaki, where he would barely spend a couple of days resting before going back to work.
Back to work in Nagasaki
His burns were bandaged, and that was pretty much all the treatment he got before reporting for duty just three days after surviving the destruction in Hiroshima. Shortly after 11:00 am, on August 9, Yamaguchi was telling his boss the story of how a whole city had been destroyed by a single bomb. His boss was highly skeptical, thinking such an idea was entirely implausible and dismissing Yamaguchi’s reports as crazy. Moments later, “the sun fell out of the sky” over Nagasaki. Another blinding light went off, and yet again Yamaguchi was violently thrown by the force of the explosion. Nagasaki had been destroyed.
Yamaguchi, once again about 3 km away from ground zero, survived the Nagasaki bombing without injury. However, due to his previous burns and inability to change his bandages amid all the chaos, he developed an infection that lasted for days. His wife and infant son also survived.
Amazingly, Yamaguchi went on to live a relatively healthy life after his wounds had healed. The Japanese government recognized him as survivor only of the Nagasaki bombing in 1957, and that was enough for him and his family. For years, he didn’t care to tell his story. He maintained a low profile for several reasons, starting with the fact that there was prejudice surrounding radiation sickness—people back then feared it was contagious. He also felt that, since his injuries weren’t as visible as the ones other survivors suffered, it would’ve been wrong of him to draw attention from the media.
However, after his son died of cancer at the age of 59, Yamaguchi changed his mind. He became a vocal advocate for the dismantlement of nuclear weapons, and began telling his tale far and wide. He applied for official recognition of his double survivor status, which was granted by the Japanese government in 2009, less than a year before his death. Humble, unassuming, and sensible throughout his life, Yamaguchi dedicated his final years to pacifism and anti-war activism. And many people were charmed by his words and story. He wrote a book, as well as poems, about the terrors of nuclear explosions, and pleaded for their abolition in a 2006 documentary titled Twice Survived: The Doubly Atomic Bombed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Late in life, he and his wife contracted radiation-related ailments. He suffered from cataracts, leukemia, and eventually, stomach cancer, for which he was hospitalized in 2009. Months later, at the old age of 93, Yamaguchi died in his hometown of Nagasaki. His wife died the same year.
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