Friday, January 08, 2010

Jeez, I Thought I've Had Rough Weeks

The next time I have a difficult stretch, I'm going to try to remember this:

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, Survivor of Both Atomic Bombings, Dies at 93

And in Japan, the only person known to have survived both US atomic attacks during World War II has died. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was ninety-three years old. Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima when the US dropped the first atomic bomb on August 6th, 1945. He suffered several wounds but returned to his hometown of Nagasaki, which was bombed three days later. In his elder years, Yamaguchi became a vocal proponent of nuclear abolition.

Emphasis added. Despite being something of a World War II nut when I was younger (long before the History Channel came along), I did not realize that there was anyone who had been on the receiving end of both bombings and had lived to talk about them. But then in those days I was much more enchanted with the machinery of war and found it easier not to think about the people involved—those who use it, and those whom it's used against. Nowadays, I can't help being awestruck by stories like this:
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".

"The same white light filled the room." Somehow that's one of the most chilling sentences I've ever read.


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