Only Survivor Of Both Atomic Bombs Dies
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The only officially recognized survivor of both atomic bomb blasts in Japan died on Monday in Nagasaki. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was 93 years old and died of stomach cancer. Yamaguchi was a ship designer on a business trip to Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was dropped. He was badly burned but got on a train home to be with his family in Nagasaki. Three days later, the second bomb was dropped there. Writer Charles Pellegrino interviewed Mr. Yamaguchi and other survivors for his upcoming book "The Last Train from Hiroshima."
And, Mr. Pellegrino, I wonder if you could read from your book the description of what happened to Tsutomu Yamaguchi when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He was just two miles away.
Mr. CHARLES PELLEGRINO (Author, "The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back"): Right.
The ground roared and quivered, snapped and leaped, tossing Yamaguchi out of the ditch nearly a meter into the air. As he fell, the fireball imploded overhead and began to rise at stupendous speed, creating a vacuum that for a second or two threatened to draw the engineer upward from the face of the Earth. But instead, it merely levitated him for what seemed an impossibly long time on a cushion of air and rushing dust before finally dropping him face first into one of the muddy furrows from which it had drawn him. He felt like a leaf on the wind.
BLOCK: Tsutomu Yamaguchi had horrible burns. He was in severe pain, but he hears, by your account, that a train was leaving for Nagasaki. To get to that train, though, he had to cross over a river without a bridge. What did he do?
Mr. PELLEGRINO: He actually crossed over on bodies. At one point, actually using basically a floating pile, almost like a rafter, iceberg of bloated bodies the next day and paddled across on those.
BLOCK: He does find his family in Nagasaki, his wife and his young son. And you describe him going back to work at Mitsubishi. He's still covered in bandages, still badly wounded, and he tries to warn the workers there about how to protect themselves: if another bomb were to come, to duck behind any desk or chair for cover. And they scoff at him.
Mr. PELLEGRINO: Yes. His boss was actually telling him, what he was saying about the entire city of Hiroshima disappearing, that this was almost treasonous talk. He said, do the math. You've been injured in your head. No bomb can do this sort of thing. And then right on the heels of this, there was the flash outside the window, and everyone immediately obeyed the previous instructions he had given and ducked down.
That section of the Mitsubishi office was actually located in what became known as a shock cocoon. Behind the office was a steel-reinforced stairwell that diverged the blast wave almost the way the prow of a ship would throw water to either side, and almost the entire building disappeared around them. More than 300 people died in adjoining offices. And Mr. Yamaguchi and the 30 men who were in that one office with him behind the stairwell, they were basically all that was left of the building.
BLOCK: You write that Mr. Yamaguchi felt that he had been given, through the course of these two tragedies, a second life and that he had to choose how to lead it. What was his choice?
Mr. PELLEGRINO: Right. For a period of time, for months, he was very depressed, very angry, even wanting revenge. And he felt where another colleague of his, Dr. Akizuki(ph), stayed angry for a very long time and referred to these concentric circles of death. Mr. Yamaguchi had another type of viral idea that he could empower children, he could empower anyone to just go out with something, with what in America we call the pay-it-forward principle. And he felt that somewhere, somehow, this would reach into some place, maybe change the life of some child who might otherwise grow up to do something evil and ultimately had a small chance of even preventing perhaps another Hiroshima or another Nagasaki in the future.
BLOCK: Did Tsutomu Yamaguchi explicitly become an activist on nuclear nonproliferation?
Mr. PELLEGRINO: Yes. He hoped that eventually there would be a time when nuclear weapons would simply not exist anywhere in the world. That would be a good thing to hope for. I don't think many people can disagree with it. It's just how do you get there? That's what we have to work at and think about.
BLOCK: Charles Pellegrino, thank you very much.
Mr. PELLEGRINO: You're welcome.
BLOCK: Charles Pellegrino, his forthcoming book is titled "The Last Train from Hiroshima." He was remembering Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who died on Monday in Nagasaki. He was 93.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.