Beating the Bomb

Twenty-nine year old Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima, Japan, about to return home from a business trip, when he realized that he left his hanko — a personal seal used for endorsing documents — back at the office.   His return trip was interrupted by history.   The U.S. bomber Enola Gay dropped the an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, with the center of impact fewer than two miles from where Yamaguchi’s walk took him.  Nearly 140,000 people died in the explosion but Yamaguchi survived.  The force of the blast knocked Yamaguchi to the ground, permanently destroyed his left eardrum, temporarily blinded him, and caused severe burns across part of his body.  Nevertheless, after seeking shelter, he managed to return to his hometown for treatment the next day.

Two days later, Yamaguchi — still bandaged and deaf in his left ear — returned to work.   He was recounting the events of the Hiroshima bombing with a supervisor when the images he saw just a few days earlier began to appear before him again.   But Yamaguchi was not suffering from a flashback.  He worked in Nagasaki, and he was, again, fewer than two miles from the point of impact of an atomic bomb.

And again, he survived.   This time, he did so with no new injuries, although the explosion ruined his bandages from the first blast, and caused him to run a fever.

Yamaguchi is the only person recognized by the Japanese government to be a double hibakusha (ornij? hibakusha), the term given to survivors of the atomic bomb drops.  (Hibakushas are entitled to a specific kind of government support.)  There are probably, in total, between 100 and 300 people who survived both blasts, but only Yamaguchi has thus far earned the distinction.

His health, after the blasts and radiation exposures, was decidedly mixed.   He wore bandages for most of his young adult life, lost hearing in his left ear (as noted above), and went bald.   His children all believe that they, too, inherited health problems caused by the radiation.  However, Yamaguchi was (after a long recovery) able to return to work and live a relatively normal life — and a long one at that.  He passed away in January of this year, at age 93.

Bonus fact: Some call Yamaguchi the world’s luckiest person, having survived both bombs.   If so, what does that make Kathleen Caronna?  During the 1997 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, a Cat in the Hat balloon escaped its handlers, knocking over a lamppost.  The lamppost struck Caronna in the head, sending her into a coma for nearly a month.   Nine years later, New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle crashed his plane into an apartment building overlooking the East River, killing him and his flight instructor.  The plane’s engine landed in one of the apartments — owned by Kathleen Caronna.   This time, she wasn’t harmed, as she wasn’t home, but the apartment’s bedroom was destroyed by the ensuing fire.

From the Archives: Bombs Away: How the US military lost a hydrogen bomb.

Related: Yamaguchi’s book — a book of poems inspired by the war.

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