Atomic bombs exploded into chaotic destruction just two times in history: first on August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima and again on August 9 of that same year in Nagasaki. When the United States unleashed those two bombs upon Japan’s cities, the international community saw destruction unlike anything prior. More than 100,000 civilians died in the wake of the explosions, and many more fell ill or died in the weeks, months, and years that followed. Yet perhaps the most surprising legacy of those two atomic bombs is that both happened to miss one man. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was present in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the nuclear weapons detonated, yet somehow survived. This miraculous man, who earned the nickname “Lucky,” lived a long life as the only Japanese citizen recognized as a survivor of both terrifying explosions.
How Yamaguchi Found Himself in Hiroshima
Tsutomu Yamaguchi shouldn’t have been in Hiroshima when Little Boy, the first atomic bomb, exploded within the city. In fact, Yamaguchi was on his way out of the city – it was merely bad luck that led him to his fate. 29-year-old Yamaguchi worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. In May 1945, Mitsubishi sent Yamaguchi on a three-month business trip to Hiroshima. After spending the summer designing new oil tankers for the company, he was scheduled to return to his hometown of Nagasaki on August 6. His wife, Hisako, and his young son, Katsutoshi, waited for him there.
On that fateful day, Yamaguchi packed his bags and headed to the Mitsubishi work site one last time. Before he reached his destination, though, he heard a plane overhead. As he turned his attention skyward, Yamaguchi recognized a U.S. B-29 bomber. The plane dropped a small object and soared away. It was 8:15 in the morning.
Moments later, everything lit up in a fiery blast. Yamaguchi instinctively dove into a nearby ditch – but the shock wave that accompanied Little Boy’s powerful explosion yanked Yamaguchi from his hiding place. He was thrown into a potato patch, quickly losing consciousness as the bomb’s after-attack continued. The mushroom cloud left by Little Boy bloomed above Hiroshima as the city burned. Yamaguchi had been standing less than two miles away from the impact site. When he regained consciousness, burns scarred his face and his forearms, his right ear was gone, and he would later learn both of his eardrums were ruptured. Yet he was alive.
Yamaguchi wandered around his destroyed workplace, attempting to piece together what happened. He found two coworkers who also survived the blast. When they discovered that trains were still running out of the city, the men made their way through the ruins of Hiroshima to the train station. As they passed through the city, Yamaguchi saw complete hell: streets lined with corpses, buildings burned and crumbling, and many structures still lit with burning fires.
Yamaguchi Experiences Hell Once Again
Soon, “Lucky” was home in Nagasaki. Despite the painful burns that covered his body, the bandages swathing his entire body, and the hearing he’d lost in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi went to work at the Mitsubishi plant on August 9th. He told his coworkers there the story of what happened when the world around him exploded, and his supervisor remarked that Yamaguchi was crazy – his story just wasn’t believable to these people who had never experienced the detonation of a nuclear weapon.
In the seconds that followed Yamaguchi’s story – and his supervisor’s comments – the U.S. dropped the world’s second nuclear bomb, Fat Man. Like Yamaguchi witnessed in Hiroshima, what appeared to be a small dot in the sky suddenly exploded into brilliant white light. Indoors this time, Yamaguchi fell to the floor as the bomb shattered every window in the building. In complete disbelief, he believed that somehow the aftershock of the Hiroshima blast had hit Nagasaki. Yamaguchi was wrong; Nagasaki was hit with a new bomb, one even more powerful than the first. For the second time, this miraculous man escaped certain death.
Just like in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi immediately tried to find a hiding place. Yet his family was at risk. He ran home to his wife and young son and found them hiding in the rubble of their home. Fortunately, neither was seriously injured. The three made their way to a bomb shelter, where they suffered the immediate effects of Fat Man’s radiation. Yamaguchi, still burned from Hiroshima, lived helplessly as the radiation exposure made his hair fall out, his wounds grew infected with gangrene, and he couldn’t keep any food in his stomach without vomiting. Miraculously, “Lucky” survived these ailments and continued to live.
A Lucky Life After the Atomic Bombs
In the years that passed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Yamaguchi’s life returned to normal. He kept a low profile, working with the U.S. military during the nation’s occupation of Japan. He earned recognition from the Japanese government as a hibakusha – the word for those who survived the bombings – and received financial and medical assistance because of this status. “Lucky” Yamaguchi sought hibakusha status only for the Hiroshima explosion at first. A simple man living a normal life, he didn’t want the attention that would come with the recognition of being a “double survivor.”.
Yet as Yamaguchi grew older, he began to experience health problems caused by radiation, and he felt it was his destiny to allow the government to record his unique story. So, in January 2009, Yamaguchi filed for double hibakusha recognition. He was recognized by Japan in March of that same year, becoming the only person in government records to be an official survivor of both nuclear bomb attacks.
A year after his recognition as a double survivor – on January 4, 2010 – at the age of 93, Tsutomu “Lucky” Yamaguchi died from stomach cancer. The last years of his life were filled with health challenges imposed on him thanks to Little Boy and Fat Man, as he developed cataracts, acute leukemia, and ultimately the cancer that took his life. Yet this incredibly lucky man survived to not only share his story with the world but to live a normal life for nearly 100 years. He truly deserved the nickname “Lucky,” after experiencing two world-altering and terrifying events yet surviving them both.