The United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in August of 1945, attacks that convinced the Japanese leadership to surrender by destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killing 120,000 people, most of them civilians.
Tsutomu Yamaguchi has the dubious distinction of having been within two miles of both blasts.
Yamaguchi designed tankers for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. He was in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 finishing up a three-month business trip to the shipyards there when he heard the low, distinctive drone of a bomber overhead.
“It was very clear, a really fine day, nothing unusual about it at all,” he said in 2005. “I was in good spirits. As I was walking along I heard the sound of a plane, just one. I looked up into the sky and saw the B-29, and it dropped two parachutes. I was looking up at them, and suddenly it was like a flash of magnesium, a great flash in the sky, and I was blown over.”
The young man passed out. He woke back up in time to see a pillar of fire over the city that eventually bloomed into the darkly iconic mushroom cloud shape of a nuclear explosion. He was less than two miles from the epicenter of the explosion.
He rushed to an air raid shelter where he found two of his colleagues who were on the trip with him. They rushed to grab their belongings and flee back to their hometown of Nagasaki. As they made their way to the train platform, they saw firsthand the destruction and carnage around the city.
“They didn’t cry,” Yamaguchi said. “I saw no tears at all. Their hair was burned, and they were completely naked. Everywhere there were burned people, some of them dead, some of them on the verge of death. None of them spoke. None of them had the strength to say a word. I didn’t hear human speech, or shouts, just the sound of the city in flames.’
He made it to the hospital in Nagasaki and was treated for the burns that covered much of his body. Despite his injuries, he reported Aug. 9 for work at Mitsubishi.
There, his boss did not believe the rumors that the devastation at Hiroshima was the result of a single bomb.
“Well, the director was angry,” Yamaguchi told the Daily Mail. He quoted his superior: “‘A single bomb can’t destroy a whole city! You’ve obviously been badly injured, and I think you’ve gone a little mad.'”
As his boss was discounting his story, the second bomb went off overhead. “Outside the window I saw another flash,” Yamaguchi said. “The whole office was blown over.”
Again, Yamaguchi was less than two miles from the bomb when it detonated. The second blast blew off his bandages and severely injured the formerly skeptical director he’d been talking to.
This time, the hospital that had treated Yamaguchi was destroyed so he simply ran home. He sheltered there, dazed by a bad fever until Aug. 15 when he heard that Japan had surrendered.
Yamaguchi went on to become an advocate against nuclear proliferation. In 2010 he died of cancer.