93-year-old Tsutomu Yamaguchi passed away last Monday at the age of 93. You’ve probably never heard of him. In all the world’s population there are very few people who have survived an atomic bomb attack; fewer yet survived two of them. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was one of them.
On 6 August 1945 he went on a business trip to Hiroshima. The timing was particularly unfortunate; that was the day the Enola Gay dropped the first of the two atomic bombs used against Japan in the closing days of World War II. Over one hundred thousand people lost their lives in that single blast; Tsutomu Yamaguchi was only two miles from the center, and yet survived, though badly burned. After spending a night in an air raid shelter, he went back home to his wife and infant son. They lived in Nagasaki.
Nagasaki may not be as famous as Hiroshima, but it was the site of the second atomic bomb drop, on 9 August 1945. Tsutomu Yamaguchi must have just been settling in when it happened. Seventy thousand people died, but his family was spared.
Apparently 165 people are known to have survived both blasts. It’s an odd distinction, both unlucky and lucky at the same time. Unlucky enough to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time twice over, and lucky enough to have survived the horrors. Twice over.
It is probably due to the existence of people like Tsutomu Yamaguchi—living witnesses to the catastrophe of an atomic bomb attack—that any of us are alive today. Fire-breathing patriots on both sides of the Iron Curtain were all too ready to drop the big one and see what happened during the Cold War; if there had been no witnesses to tell of the consequences, might they not have prevailed? Hiroshima and Nagasaki stood in the way; they were monuments to what the rest of the world could all too easily become. Those who had witnessed the—what? Tragedy? Horror? The words are too feeble. These are the kinds of reactions that belong inside stars, not on the surface of our green and fragile planet. These witnesses had seen what none of us should ever have to experience, and maybe from them we learned enough to hold off on the consequences of an unlimited nuclear war. When I was a child I never expected to see 2010; that the great atomic war never happened may well be due in part to those who kept the unthinkable memories alive.
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