The Unluckiest Train Ride

The following is an article from the newest volume of the Bathroom Reader series, Uncle John's 24-Karat Bathroom Reader.

Even if you're not a history buff and know very little about World War II, there is one thing about it that you do know: how it ended. But here's a part of the story that you may not know.


Shortly after 8:00AM on the morning of August 6, 1945, lookouts in the mountains east of Hiroshima, Japan, spotted two American B-29 bombers flying in close formation, followed by a third B-29, a few miles back. They weren't overly concerned. The aircraft were flying at an altitude of more than 31,000 feet, unusually high for a bombing run. The firebombing raids that had devastated more than 60 Japanese cities since March of 1945 operated at a much lower altitude and involved huge numbers of B-29s, sometimes 500 or more. The only bombers that had flown as high as these three had been on reconnaissance missions, not bombing runs.

Even when the three aircraft altered course and headed straight for Hiroshima, officials weren't alarmed. It was common for B-29s to rendezvous near the city before heading off to bomb other targets. At this late stage of the war, fuel, ammunition, airplanes, and pilots were in desperately short supply in Japan; the military couldn't afford to waste resources chasing just a handful of planes. The B-29s approached Hiroshima unmolested by fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire.

Two of the three planes were indeed carrying only scientific and reconnaissance equipment. But the last plane, the Enola Gay, was on one of the deadliest missions of the war. It was carrying an atomic bomb, one with an explosive power equivalent to 18,000 tons of TNT -more than 1,500 times as powerful as the British Grand Slam, the largest bomb that had ever been used in warfare. At 8:15 AM, the Enola Gay released the bomb over the city. It dropped to an altitude of 2,000 feet, and then exploded, destroying much of Hiroshima and killing an estimated 70,000 people, or 30 percent of the population. Another 70,000 would die within weeks.

Shigeyoshi Morimoto


Shigeyoshi Morimoto was luckier than many people in the city. The master kitemaker was in town for a secret meeting to study whether kites could be used to protect the Japanese fleet from attack by American fighter planes, and was visiting his cousin's home about a half a mile from ground zero when the bomb went off. Ninety-five percent of the people who were that close to the bomb were killed, but Morimoto, his cousin, and his cousin's son all survived.

"There was something like a lightning flash, and along with the flash the house collapsed and we were pinned beneath the fallen ceiling and roof," Morimoto told interviewer Robert Trumbull in 1956. "All three of us were alive -unhurt, in fact, except for bruises from the fallen roof and ceiling of the ruined house, which kept us from being exposed to the horrible blast." When the three dug themselves out of the rubble, they were stunned by the vastness of the destruction. Like a lot of survivors, they assumed that the blast had been nearby, perhaps caused by an exploding fuel tank or a bomb falling a few blocks away. But when they saw how widespread the damage was, they realized this was no ordinary bomb. Every building within a one-mile radius of the blast was flattened, and every building within a 4.5 square mile area was or would soon be destroyed by fire. (Many of the fires were caused by cooking stoves knocked over by the explosion.)



Morimoto returned to the hotel where he had been staying, to see if he could salvage any of his belongings. The hotel was badly damaged but still standing. There he found that three of his colleagues had also survived: Tsuitaro Doi, Shinji Kinoshita, and Masao Komatsu.  The four men spent the night in the ruins of the hotel, and the following morning they discussed what to do next.

Tsuitaro Doi, Shinji Kinoshita, and Masao Komatsu.


By now the news of the destruction of Hiroshima had spread to the rest of Japan, but there was no way for survivors to get word out to their families that they were still alive. The bomb had knocked all telephone and telegraph lines, as well as the radio stations. The four men decided to return home, and after obtaining permission to leave the city, on the afternoon of August 8 they walked out of Hiroshima and found a train to their home city: Nagasaki.


At least three trains left Hiroshima for Nagasaki, 190 miles to the southwest, and arrived there by August 9, the day that an atomic bomb was dropped on that city. One train left on the afternoon of August 6th, another on the 7th, and another on the 8th. Thought the trains left Hiroshima packed with fleeing refugees, most of the passengers traveled only a few stops beyond the city before they got off.

Nevertheless, it's estimated that at least 165 survivors of the Hiroshima bomb traveled to Nagasaki, were there for the second atomic blast, and lived to tell the tale. The number of Hiroshima survivors who were killed by the Nagasaki bomb is unknown.


While it was certainly bad luck to survive one atomic bomb only to be bombed a second time, many of the citizens of Nagasaki who spoke to the Hiroshima survivors before the second bomb fell were fortunate to have done so. They learned valuable information that increased their own chances of survival.

The Hiroshima survivors knew, for example, that a short interval of time separated the initial blinding flash of light from the destructive blast wave that followed it, in much the same way that thunder follows lightning. People close to ground zero had just a moment or two to take cover before the blast wave hit; people further away had more time -not a lot more time, but even a few seconds was enough to flee into a basement or a nearby air-raid shelter, or at least duck down below window level before the glass exploded into thousands of flying, razor-sharp projectiles.

Tsutomo Yamaguchi in 1956

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a ship designer for the Mitsubishi company, was one of the Hiroshima survivors who returned to Nagasaki. He reported to work on the morning of August 9 and shared his experiences with his staff, stressing the importance of getting away from the windows as soon as they saw such a flash. When the flash did come a short time later at 11:02 AM, many workers dove for cover behind desks and other sturdy objects. "My section's staff suffered the least in that building. In other sections there was a heavy toll of serious injuries from flying glass," he told journalist Robert Trumbull in 1956.

Many such conversations between Hiroshima survivors and Nagasaki citizens were taking place at the very moment the second bomb exploded. Shigeyoshi Morimoto, the master kitemaker, had just finished describing the atomic bomb to his wife ("First there is a great blue flash...") when their house was suddenly flooded with a blinding blue flash. "There, you see!" he shouted. "It comes again! That's what I mean!" He shoved his wife and son into the family's air-raid shelter and jumped in behind them, pulling the heavy trap door shut just as the blast wave destroyed their house. Morimoto, his wife, and their son were uninjured.


The story of the nijyuu hibakusha, or "double bomb-affected people" is one of the least-known stories of World War II, and this is due in large part to the fact that very few of the nijyuu hibakusha have come forward. As of 2009,  only one of them -ship designer Tsutomu Yamaguchi- has been officially recognized by the Japanese government as a survivor of both bombs.

In the mid-1950s, Trumbull traveled to Japan in search of the nijyuu hibakusha, but he was only able to come up with a list of 18 names. He tracked down 11 people on the list, but only nine, including Tsutomu Yamaguchi, kitemaker Shigeyoshi Morimoto and his three colleagues, Tsuitaro Doi, Shinji Kinoshita, and Masao Komatsu- agreed to speak to him. He published their accounts in his 1957 book Nine Who Survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the few books ever written on the subject. (A 2010 book titled Last Train from Hiroshima, by another author, was withdrawn from publication after it was found to contain fabricated sources and information.)


The reluctance of so many to speak of their experiences may be due in part to the fact that for many years, there was a stigma associated with being an atomic bomb survivor. Because they often suffered from fatigue, malaise, and other illnesses caused by exposure to radiation, survivors suffered from job discrimination and even social isolation, shunned by people who feared that their strange sickness might be contagious. And for a decade after the war, the victims of the atom bombs were largely ignored by the Japanese government, which was wary of assuming responsibility for the victims of American bombs. It wasn't until 1954, when the crew of a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to radioactive fallout from an American hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll, that public outrage over the incident forced the government to take an active interest in the well-being of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims as well. The A-Bomb Victims Medical Care Bill, which provided free medical care to the victims, became a Japanese law in 1957.


Another reason for the silence of so many nijyuu hibakusha was that although they were very lucky to have survived two atomic bombings, that experience was so traumatic that many people have simply chosen not to talk about it, at least not publicly. Kitemaker Shigeyoshi Morimoto survived both bombings largely unscathed, but he lost two family members at Hiroshima and eight more at Nagasaki.  And the images of death and destruction he witnessed after both bombings were among the most horrific ever seen.

Tsutomo Yamaguchi in 2005

Tsutomo Yamaguchi, the Mitsubishi ship designer, was badly burned by the Hiroshima bomb and suffered further injuries at Nagasaki. He wore bandages for 16 years, and his wounds never did completely heal.  His wife and six-month-old son were exposed to "black rain" radioactive fallout from the Nagasaki bomb, and they, along with a daughter who was born after the war, suffered from chronic health problems for the rest of their lives.

Aside from the interview with Robert Turnbull in the 1950s, Yamaguchi largely avoided public attention for decades and was not active in Japan's antinuclear movement. But when his son died from cancer in 2005 at the age of 59, he went public with his story and began speaking against nuclear war. "Having been granted this miracle, it is my responsibility to pass on the truth to people of the world. For the past 60 years survivors have declared the horror of the atomic bomb, but I can hardly see any improvement in the situation," he told an interviewer in 2005. Yamaguchi died from stomach cancer in January 2010 at the age of 93.


The article above was reprinted with permission from the newest volume of the Bathroom reader series, Uncle John's 24-Karat Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Understood, my great aunt is a survivor. We heard bits and pieces of what happened after the bomb hit. Every year the Japanese doctors would come over here, take her blood and test her. To see the after effects of the bomb.
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I read John Hersey's book "Hiroshima" a half century ago and have never been able to get the eidetic imagery out of my head. It's my belief that a grave mistake was made in haste when we deployed the atomic bomb against a civilian population, time will tell. We let that genie out of the bottle and I can't help but believe that some day we'll reap what we've sown.
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Social liberals never mention the U. S. military and Japanese lives that were saved by the atom bombing of Japan in 1945. As long as you're being so benevolent, let's just pretend the war, started by the Japanese, by the way, just never happened. See, now everyone's happy!
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In 1942, The Philippines was surrendered to the Japanese. Over 70000 US and Filipino troops were marched across peninsula of Bataan to concentration camps. Approximately 10000 troops died in what is known as the Bataan Death March.

In February 1945, the Battle of Manila, between US and Japanese tooprs, killed an estimated 150000 citizens., and left the city looking pretty much like Hiroshima.

Maybe a little more insight on why they decided to drop the bomb...?
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