For those of us who believe in good luck and bad luck, meet Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the luckiest man of the 20th century. He was in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the atomic bombs were dropped, but he survived them both.

We now live in a world where supposed facts either turn out to be fictions or are so outrageous that the increasingly dismayed novelist would struggle to get them passed as ‘feasible’ by the fiction department.

We exist in a crucible of hyperbole, for so bombarded are we by information that only the most extreme and the fittest of snippets survive. Yet it would be hard, nay perhaps impossible, to find a simultaneously luckier and unluckier man in the twentieth century than Tsutomu Yamaguchi. He was in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the atomic bombs were dropped, but he survived them both.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi,
Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a 29-year-old Engineer for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Image: scribol.com

Yamaguchi was a 29 year year-old naval engineer in the employ of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, where he designed oil tankers. He had just spent a three month stint in Hiroshima when on August 6th, 1945 he was preparing to return to his hometown to his wife, Hisako and young boy, Katsutoshi

On the approach to the railway station, he realized he had left his travel papers behind at the shipyard and returned to collect them. This was around 8:15 a.m., when he heard the drone of a large aircraft overhead. The American B-29 bomber was the Enola Gay.

Yamaguchi saw the bomb drop, connected to a small parachute. He was less than two miles from where Little Boy fell, causing in his words “the lightning of a huge magnesium flare.” He dived into a ditch before the boom split his eardrums, and the shock wave lifted him like a rag doll and threw him into a potato patch.

Atomic cloud over Hiroshima
Atomic cloud over Hiroshima. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Speaking later to The Times of London, he said, “I didn’t know what had happened. I think I fainted for a while. When I opened my eyes, everything was dark, and I couldn’t see much. It was like the start of a film at the cinema, before the picture has begun when the blank frames are just flashing up without any sound.”

Yamaguchi was badly burned across the face and arms, and feared blindness, but this was the blotting out of the sun by the debris.

By minor miracle, he walked into his co-workers Akira Iwanaga and Kuniyoshi Sato, both of whom had survived the blast. They slept that night in an air raid shelter. The next morning, they all made their way, through that post-apocalyptic horror we see in the movies, towards the train station, which they had heard, perhaps even more miraculously, was still operating.

To cross the now bridgeless river to get to the train station, Yamaguchi and his friends had to swim past and wade through scores of charred corpses. They reached the station, where, yes indeed, there was a train leaving for his hometown. Nagasaki.

Upon his return home, his wife barely recognized him. Yamaguchi visited a doctor, an old school-friend, where he was bandaged up and told to rest. However, the next day, the 9th, his Japanese work ethic was still robust enough to report for work. He was recounting the events of the 6th, one bomb obliterating a whole city, to a doubtful Mitsubishi director at around 11 a.m..

Atomic cloud over Hiroshima
Atomic cloud over Hiroshima. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Then it happened again. And again he was less than two miles from the blast.
He later told The Independent of London, “I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima.”

He was blown across the office, covered in glass. He rose and ran immediately to his home to check on his wife and son. The house had been flattened. They had not been there, however. They were out looking for burn ointments for Yamaguchi and had been in a tunnel when the bomb had landed. Ironically, Yamaguchi’s Hiroshima injuries had saved his family.

Hiroshima
The devastation of the A-Bomb dropped on 6 August 1945 on Hiroshima. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Yamaguchi became sick from the radiation, and was still living in a bomb shelter with his family on August 15, when Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced the country’s surrender in a radio broadcast.

“I had no feeling about it. I was neither sorry nor glad. I was seriously ill with a fever, eating almost nothing, hardly even drinking. I thought that I was about to cross to the other side,” he later told The Times of London.

Nijyuu Hibakusha
Tsutomu Yamaguchi. Image: Jemal Countess

Yamaguchi slowly recovered, though had intermittent illnesses throughout his life. He and his wife even had two more kids, both girls. He was the only person officially recognized by the Japanese government as a “nijyuu hibakusha,” or “twice-bombed person.” He was given the the distinction in 2009, only a year before he died at the age of 93.

For those of us who believe in good luck and bad luck; the magnificent and heart-breaking randomness of life without any destiny or fate, marionett’ing overseer or master plan, we need look no further for our proof than the embodiment of our hypothesis, Tsutomu Yamaguchi , the young lad from Mitsubishi.

Yes, that is he; the one exiting the fiction department with a crash and at a velocity only marginally less than the one that once landed him in a scorched potato patch many moons ago.

If you liked this post, sign up for the Weekly Memo, a handpicked selection of the most Interesting Shit delivered to your inbox every Saturday. Or join our 250,000+ followers by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

Ian Thornton

Ian Thornton

Ian Thornton is an English novelist, living in Toronto. His critically-acclaimed debut, The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, was published by Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. His follow-up, The Deaths and Afterlife of Aleister Crowley, will be out on Penguin later this year. Ian is currently producing a documentary on the head of Anonymous.