After three and one-half years of fighting alongside Britain in World War II, Nazi Germany was already defeated and Imperial Japan was tottering. Most of the islands of the Pacific Theater of Operations had been retaken from Japan. Even Okinawa, one of Japan’s southernmost populated islands had fallen to American amphibious assault. All that was left was an invasion of the Japanese home islands.
The military estimated that it might cost as many as five hundred thousand to one million lives to accomplish such a feat. MacArthur was ready to plan the invasion but the political authorities were not so sure. President Harry Truman was persuaded to use the newly-tested atomic bomb—two of them—on Japan.
The belief was that it would be such a horrifying sight that it would force Japan out of the war. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was enough to do it. The Imperial cabinet met quickly and began drafting a peace settlement. From the US point of view, however, a statement needed to be made, so they dropped a second bomb on Negasaki.
The statement was not intended for the Japanese; it was aimed at the Soviets as a warning to halt their aggression in Europe and to take their sights off of Japan. It was a statement that cost 70,000 additional lives.
On August 6, 1945, Tsutomu Yamaguchi was on a business trip to Hiroshima. He was a designer of oil tankers for the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Company. He was on his way home but before getting to the train station, he realized that he had forgotten his travel papers at the Hiroshima office. So he went back to retrieve them.
When he stepped off the trolley, he heard the roar of a warplane’s engines overhead. It was 8:15 a.m. He look up to see if it was a Japanese warplane but it was not. It was the Enola Gay. He saw two parachutes released but could not see the bomb attached.
“There was a great flash in the sky and I was blown over,” Yamaguchi later recalled. He was a little over 1.5 miles from the bomb—a 13 kiloton uranium atomic bomb—when it detonated overhead. When a thermonuclear device explodes, first comes the flash and the shockwave followed by the fireball.
Yamaguchi was temporarily blinded by the flash and the shockwave blew him off his feet. Then came the fireball. He was burned on his left side. The last thing he remembered before losing consciousness was seeing the mushroom cloud.
"When the noise and the blast had subsided I saw a huge mushroom-shaped pillar of fire rising up high into the sky,” he told the London Daily Telegraph in 2010. “It was like a tornado, although it didn't move, but it rose and spread out horizontally at the top. There was prismatic light, which was changing in a complicated rhythm, like the patterns of a kaleidoscope. The first thing I did was to check that I still had my legs and whether I could move them. I thought, 'If I stay here, I'll die'."
He made his way to the air-raid shelter and discovered that he was severely burned. He was bandaged and decided to make his way home to be with his wife and son. The rail bridge was destroyed by the blast and he had to cross the river to get to another train.
In an interview with NHK in 2007, Yamaguchi related that he had to swim past burned and bloated bodies in the river to make it to the other side. He spoke of the walking dead in Hiroshima. Eventually, he made it to the other side and boarded a train for home.
His home was Negasaki.
With bandages and all, he reported for work on August 9. His supervisor had asked him about the burns and the bandages and Yamaguchi told his story. He told how he had seen metal melted and twisted. The supervisor told him that there was no way that a single bomb could do such damage to Hiroshima.
“You’re an engineer. Calculate it. How could one bomb destroy a whole city?” his supervisor questioned.
At that moment—at that very moment—at 11:02 a.m., Negasaki was rocked by the second atomic bomb. Because of the distance from the bomb and the lead shielding in the building where he worked, Yamaguchi was saved again.
He made his way home to find his wife and baby son still alive. The home was ruined and they spent the next week in an air-raid shelter. On August 15, 1945, he would learn that Japan had surrendered.
Yamaguchi and his family suffered from radiation sickness for the rest of their lives. Even his as-yet-unborn daughter would be affected by the radiation.
Yamaguchi would spent his post-war years speaking out against nuclear proliferation and war. He never blamed the United States. The true criminal, he would say, is war itself.
“It was my destiny that I experienced this twice and I am still alive to convey what happened.”
To the United Nations, he said, “It is my responsibility to pass on the truth to the people of the world.”
In 2009, Yamaguchi was called eniijuu hibakusha (the double bomb survivor) by the Japanese government. The year before, his wife died from liver and kidney cancer caused by the American-made Negasaki bomb. His son had, in 2005, died from cancer caused by the bomb. His daughter suffered by blood-related illnesses all of her life and she still worries for her health. In 2010, Yamaguchi himself would die from leukemia, the result of one or the other blasts he temporarily survived.
In an interview with the Independent in 2009, he said, “I can't understand why the world cannot understand the agony of nuclear bombs. How can they keep developing these weapons?”
In August of 1945, there was only one nuclear nation. Today we have the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea… But, so far, only one nation has been barbaric enough to use them.