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Twin bomb survivor’s remarkable and inspiring story

By Daryl Kee

Today is 75 years since the Anola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing more than 100,000 people. To give you an idea how big the blast was, yesterday’s explosion in Beirut was just one fifth in size.

Three days after the Hiroshima bomb, the United States dropped another on Nagasaki, leading to the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II.

More than 260,000 people survived both attacks, one of whom was 29-year-old Tsutomu Yamaguchi.

August 6 was to be the last day of a three-month stint in Hiroshima where he and a handful of colleagues had been working on a new oil tanker. After three months away, Yamaguchi was looking forward to finally returning home to his wife, Hisako, and their infant son, Katsutoshi.

Shortly after 8am, Yamaguchi was walking to work when he heard the droning of aircraft overhead. Instinctively, he dived into a ditch just before of the ear-splitting boom.

Yamaguchi was about 2km from ground zero when the bomb went off and the ensuing shockwave lifted him from the ground, spun him like a tornado and sent him hurtling into a nearby field of potatoes.

“I didn’t know what had happened,” he later said. “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.” That was because both of his eardrums had been ruptured.

The dust and debris had all but blocked out the morning sun. Through the falling ash all around him, Yamaguchi could just make out the mushroom cloud above the city.

With his face and arms burnt, Yamaguchi wandered in a daze toward what remained of the shipyard where he worked. There, he found his two co-workers, both of whom had also survived the blast.

The three spent a restless night in an air raid shelter and the next day made their way to the train station. Yamaguchi boarded a train full of burned and bewildered passengers and settled in for the overnight ride to his hometown, Nagasaki.

He arrived early in the morning on August 8 and limped to the hospital. The doctor who treated him was a childhood friend, but the burns on Yamaguchi’s hands and face were so severe the man didn’t recognise him at first. Neither did his family.

Despite his condition, Yamaguchi reported to work on August 9 at Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki headquarters. Later that morning, he was asked to give a report to company directors about what had happened in Hiroshima. As he tried to tell them of the massive explosion and the mushroom cloud, they thought he had gone mad. How could an entire city be destroyed by a single explosion?

As he was trying to explain, the air outside was lit by an iridescent flash. Yamaguchi instantly dropped to the ground just ahead of the windows imploding and the office filling with debris.

Thanks to the heavy concrete construction of the office building, he again survived. As did his family. Yamaguchi slowly recovered, unlike tens of thousands of others who died of radiation exposure, and had two more children.

It is estimated as many as 165 people experienced both bombings, but Yamaguchi was the only person officially recognised by the Japanese government as a “nijyuu hibakusha”, or “twice-bombed person”.

That distinction was bestowed on him in 2009, one year before he died at the age of 93 of stomach cancer.

Seventy-five years later, as we live through isolating and, in many cases, crippling restrictions brought on by a global pandemic, perhaps we can take strength from Yamaguchi, a man who endured, survived and ultimately thrived.

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