Man who defied both A-bombs dies aged 93

The only man to experience nuclear bombardment twice and live to tell the tale became an eloquent voice for peace

By David McNeill
Thursday 07 January 2010 01:00

Reporters never knew whether to call Tsutomu Yamaguchi the luckiest or unluckiest man alive. In 1945, the Nagasaki native was exposed to both nuclear blasts that incinerated his home city and Hiroshima. Last year the Japanese government formally recognised him as the only "nijuuhibaku" or double A-bomb survivor.

The unique horror which marked his life, and the dignified way he handled it, gave him special prominence. Lying in hospital in December, just days from dying of the cancer that finally claimed him this week, he received a distinguished visitor from overseas: Hollywood director James Cameron.

His 3D blockbuster Avatar may be searing a hole through global box office records, but Mr Cameron is already reported to be focused on his next project: an "uncompromising" movie about nuclear weapons. So when he turned up in Japan before Christmas, Mr Yamaguchi was the man he most wanted to meet.

Aged 93, the great survivor told Mr Cameron it was his "destiny" to make the movie. "Please pass on my experience to future generations," he said.

The visit partially made up for what Mr Yamaguchi had waited in vain for all his life: a meeting with a sitting US president. His sister Toshiko said that President Barack Obama's declaration in November that he wanted to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki was what had helped him cling to life. "He was elated when President Obama pledged (in a speech in Prague last year) to abolish nuclear weapons," she said. Inspired, Mr Yamaguchi painstakingly penned a letter to the President. "I was so moved by your speech in Prague," he wrote. "I devote the rest of my life to insisting that our world should abandon nuclear arms."

Mr Yamaguchi was a young engineer on a business trip to Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, when a B-29 US bomber dropped its payload – the "Little Boy", which would kill or injure 160,000 people by the end of the day. Three kilometres from Ground Zero, the blast temporarily blinded him, damaged his hearing and inflicted horrific burns over much of the top half of his body.

Three days later, he was back in his home city of Nagasaki, 190 miles away, explaining his injuries to his boss, when the same white light filled the room. "I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima," he said later. The "Fat Man" bomb killed about 70,000 people and created a city where, in the famous words of its mayor, "not even the sound of insects could be heard".

His exposure to so much radiation led to years of agony. He went bald and developed skin cancers. His son Katsutoshi died of cancer in 2005 aged 59, and his daughter Naoko never enjoyed good health. His wife died in 2008 of kidney and liver cancer. Toshiko suffered one of the many symptoms of fallout survivors: an abnormally low white blood cell count.

But once he recovered, he returned to work as a ship engineer and rarely discussed what happened to him. He quietly raised his family and declined to campaign against nuclear weapons until he felt the weight of his experiences and began to speak out. In his eighties, he wrote a book about his experiences, and took part in a documentary called Nijuuhibaku. The film shows him weeping as he describes watching bloated corpses floating in the city's rivers and encountering the walking dead of Hiroshima, whose melting flesh hung from them like "giant gloves".

Four years ago, he spoke to the UN in New York, where he pleaded with the General Assembly to fight for the abolition of nuclear weapons. When the Japanese government belatedly recognised his "double victim" status, he said that his record "can tell the younger generation the horrifying history of the atomic bombings even after I die."

Mr Cameron read Mr Yamaguchi's history before deciding to meet him, along with author Charles Pellegrino, whose book The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back is released this month. An account of the experiences of the nuclear survivors, one scene describes how Mr Yamaguchi survived in Nagasaki by a fluke, protected by a stairwell that diverted the blast as the rest of the building disintegrated around him. "He was an ordinary man so nothing prepared him for experiences like that," recalls his sister Toshiko.

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