It was August 6 when the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Only three days later, August 9th, the second one fell in Nagasaki. This week marks the 67th anniversary of the blasts that ended WWII and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, some during and some after via the radiation.
I’m not going to go into the details of the bombings, the reasons, and why it happened. There are plenty of strong opinions on whether or not it was necessary. There are also many articles you can read about this to brush up on your history and form your own opinions. I do want to tell you a pretty amazing story, though, about one particular man who got hit by both blasts and survived to the ripe old age of 93 despite everything. To do that we should probably start with a paragraph or two regarding the radiation side of things.
Radiation From Nuclear Blasts
There was much short-term sickness from the radiation of the blasts. Tens of thousands of people died from this as well as various cancers in the years to follow. According to the Radiation Dose Reconstruction US Occupation Forces In Hiroshima Nagasaki paper (what a terrible name), of the 200,000ish current survivors (as of 2011) of the blast, approximately 1% of them are recognized for having illnesses caused by the radiation from the bombings.
Now, this number is of course probably lower than the actual one. There are going to be people who don’t want to ask for a handout. There will be others who don’t want the attention. It’s hard to know exactly how many people have had lasting effects from the radiation itself, but considering it’s been 67 years now they’re all going to be fairly old already, at least 67 years of age (if they were in their mother’s womb during the blast, for example), it really shows how tough we as a species can be.
Now, not to take away anything from any of these victims, but the human body is an amazing thing. It’s actually quite resilient to radiation. We evolved for millions of years in an environment where we were constantly being bombarded by radiations from the sun and other elements. In fact, you’re being bombarded by radiation just reading this article. Don’t worry, it’s a very safe amount, much safer than flying in an airplane, for example. This XKCD comic sums it up pretty nicely, I think, and really puts it all into perspective.
But, it’s not just our ability to take radiation. So long as we don’t receive a fatal dose of it our body can actually heal itself over time. Because radiation damages our DNA and the chemical bonds inside it definitely takes a while… but our body is constantly repairing solar radiation damage like this on a much smaller scale. If it didn’t, the sun would melt us all and we’d all live in caves lined with lead and look like AKB48 fans (just kidding AKB48 fans, just kidding… don’t be angry).
All that being said, though, it’s probably not a great thing to be hit by atomic bombs. That’s pretty obvious. While most radiation is fairly harmless to people in normal quantities, nuclear blasts are pretty full of radiation and a lot of people got caught up in it. So many people died from it and are still feeling the effects.
The Hibakusha: Caught In The Blast Radius
The Hibakusha 被爆者, literally “explosion affected people,” are those who are survivors of an atomic blast. As of 2011, 430,000 hibakusha have their names recorded on the memorials (they add new names every year on the anniversaries of the bombings). At the time of the bombing Hiroshima had approximately 350,000 people living in it. Nagasaki had an estimated 240,000.
If all these numbers are correct, then there are approximately 160,000 atomic bomb survivors still alive today which is a pretty large number, all things considered. Other sources say 200,000. Still, from horrible times always comes inspiring stories of human kindness and survival. Take Eizo Nomura, for example. He was the only 560 feet from ground zero (that’s 170m), yet he survived because he was in the basement of a reinforced, concrete building. Escaping through the fire and surviving the radiation sickness, he went on to live to his eighties. 560 feet, though. Can you imagine?
The most inspirational story, however, comes from Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the man who survived both nuclear blasts. Either he was the luckiest or unluckiest man alive. I’ll let you judge.
The Luckiest And/Or Unluckiest Man In History
In January 2009, Tsutomu Yamaguchi was the first person to be officially recognized as a double atomic bomb survivor. He is one of 165 presumed double bomb victims, though he’s the only official one. How’d this all happen? Of course, there’s a pretty good story that goes along with it:
When he was 29 years old, Yamaguchi worked at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. He was in Hiroshima on a business trip when the atomic bomb dropped on August 6, 1945. He was a little less than two miles away from ground zero, getting burns and rupturing his eardrums. Compared to so many others, he was quite lucky. He tried to find the Hiroshima Mitsubishi Offices but it was just rubble. So then, he spent the night in a Hiroshima bomb shelter to try and figure out what to do next.
The next day, he followed a rumor that there were trains running in the outskirts of the city. Indeed they were, so he hopped on a train to Nagasaki. I think you know where this story is going. Arriving in Nagasaki, he found his wife and 2-year-old son. From there he made his way to the Mitsubishi office in Nagasaki and told his boss about the bomb in Hiroshima. It went something like this:
“You’re an engineer,” [the boss] barked. “Calculate it. How could one bomb…destroy a whole city?” Famous last words. [At that moment] a white light swelled inside the room. Heat prickled Yamaguchi’s skin, and he hit the deck of the ship engineering office. “I thought,” he later recalled, “the mushroom cloud followed me from Hiroshima.” (from The Violinist’s Thumb)
The thing is, the US wasn’t even planning on bombing Nagasaki. It was the secondary target. Weather made it so the primary target that day, Kokura, was unfeasible. Even Nagasaki barely happened because of cloud cover (they were ordered to do a visual drop) and things only cleared up at the last minute right before they’d have to leave because of fuel. So, it was essentially thanks to the weather than Yamaguchi got hit twice.
But, this isn’t so much the inspiring part. It’s what happened afterwards that’s interesting.
In the 1950s, Mr. and Mrs. Yamaguchi decided it was time to have children. They were feeling stronger by this time and were ready to try. At the time in history, it was thought that radiation damage would last a thousand years and be passed down from parent to child generation after generation. Considering Mrs. Yamaguchi was hit by one atomic bomb and Mr. Yamaguchi two, people probably thought their children would come out looking like monkeys. But, turns out all of that was wrong. There is no evidence of DNA damage to their children. Other children during this generation were fine as well (aka no epidemic of birth defects, cancers, and so on).
Mr. Yamaguchi himself died in January of 2010 at the age of 93. He died of stomach cancer, and while this cancer may have been caused by the radiation from the bombings, most would agree that 93 year olds tend to get cancer of some kind or another. His wife, Hisako, died before him of kidney and liver cancer at the age of 88. His son was not so lucky unfortunately, dying at the age of 59 of cancer, possibly due to radiation from the bomb. The two daughters are still alive and seem to be doing okay, though I suppose time will tell if they actually did receive any lasting effects.
There is one particular quote by Tsutomu Yamaguchi that stands out to me, though, and I’ll end the article with it.
“I could have died on either of those days,” he said. “Everything that follows is a bonus.” – Tsutomu Yamaguchi
Seriously, no complaining. About anything. You. Have. No. Reason. To. Complain. Ever. If you ever feel like your life sucks or that the world is out to get you, just think about Yamaguchi here.
So we salute you, Tsutomu Yamaguchi. You got hit by two atomic bombs, had a couple of kids despite what people thought at the time, and lived for over 9000 times the American life expectancy. You, sir, are a survivor, an inspiration, and the world’s toughest badass.