Tsutomu Yamaguchi was preparing to leave Hiroshima when the atomic bomb fell. The 29-year-old naval engineer was on a three-month-long business trip for his employer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and August 6, 1945, was supposed to be his last day in the city. He and his colleagues had spent the summer working long hours on the design for a new oil tanker, and he was looking forward to finally returning home to his wife, Hisako, and their infant son, Katsutoshi.
Two Miles From Ground Zero
Around 8:15 that morning, Tsutomu Yamaguchi was walking to Mitsubishi’s shipyard a final time when he heard the drone of an aircraft overhead. Looking skyward, he saw an American B-29 bomber soar over the city and drop a small object connected to a parachute.
Suddenly, the sky erupted in a blaze of light, which Yamaguchi later described as resembling the “the lightning of a huge magnesium flare.” He had just enough time to dive into a ditch before an ear-splitting boom rang out. The shock wave that accompanied it sucked Yamaguchi from the ground, spun him in the air like a tornado and sent him hurtling into a nearby potato patch. He’d been less than two miles from ground zero.
“I didn’t know what had happened,” he later told the British newspaper The Times. “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.”
The atomic blast had kicked up enough dust and debris to nearly blot out the morning sun. Yamaguchi was surrounded by torrents of falling ash, and he could see a mushroom cloud of fire rising in the sky over Hiroshima. His face and forearms had been badly burned, and both his eardrums were ruptured.
A Rain of Ruin
Yamaguchi wandered in a daze toward what remained of the Mitsubishi shipyard. There, he found his coworkers Akira Iwanaga and Kuniyoshi Sato, both of whom had survived the blast. After spending a restless night in an air raid shelter, the men awoke on August 7 and made their way toward the train station, which they had heard was somehow still operating.
The journey took them through a nightmarish landscape of still-flickering fires, shattered buildings and charred and melted corpses lining the streets. Many of the city’s bridges had been turned into twisted wreckage, and at one river crossing, Yamaguchi was forced to swim through a layer of floating dead bodies. Upon reaching the station, he boarded a train full of burned and bewildered passengers and settled in for the overnight ride to his hometown of Nagasaki.
While Yamaguchi returned to his wife and child, the whole world turned its attention toward Hiroshima.
Sixteen hours after the explosion, President Harry S. Truman of the United States of America gave a speech that revealed the existence of the atom bomb for the first time.
“It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe,” he said. “The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.”
A B-29 bomber called the “Enola Gay” had taken off from the Pacific island of Tinian and flown some 1,500 miles before detonating a bomb known as “Little Boy” in the
skies over Hiroshima. The blast had immediately killed some 80,000 people, and tens of thousands more would perish in the weeks that followed.
Truman warned in his statement that if Japan did not surrender, it could expect “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
To Nagasaki With Burns
Yamaguchi arrived in Nagasaki early in the morning on August 8 and limped to the hospital. The doctor who treated him was a former school classmate, but the blackened burns on Yamaguchi’s hands and face were so severe the man didn’t recognize him at first. Neither did his family. When he returned home afterward, feverish and swaddled in bandages, his mother accused him of being a ghost.