'So frighteningly quiet:' Ex-Japanese soldier survived two atomic bombings
August 6, 2003
Sightseeing around Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, seemed appropriate for Japanese Imperial Army soldier Miyoji Yamane, like thousands of other conscripts in the emperor’s service.
Days earlier, Yamane, 28, learned his Osaka-based engineering battalion would ship out to South Asia on Aug. 7. World War II was raging.
“I thought that I would not come back to Japan alive,” said Yamane, now 86 and retired in Sasayama, in western Japan.
He would survive not only the war but also the two atomic bombings that hastened the end of the Pacific conflict 58 years ago.
He still recalls hearing air raid sirens just past 8 a.m. that hot, muggy Hiroshima summer morning.
But it was an aircraft flying high in the sky that got his attention, and the parachute falling below it. “People thought a crewmember of the airplane was coming down after the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire,” he said.
But, Yamane said, he instantly remembered what he’d learned earlier from a college instructor and a newspaper reporter about a new type of bomb being developed.
“Many Japanese knew by that time about the new type of weapon through the grapevine. They called it ‘match box bomb,’” he said. “It was very small and very powerful.”
He began shouting at his fellow soldiers to jump with him into the nearby Enkou River. “There was a strong light,” said Yamane. He remembers lifting his face from the water and feeling “a strong hot wind.” They were near Taisho bridge — 1.25 miles from ground zero.
An American B-29 bomber nicknamed the Enola Gay had dropped “Little Boy” at 8:15 a.m., making Hiroshima the first city hit by an atomic weapon. Japanese government accounts and records showed more than 140,000 people would die by that year’s end as a direct result of the bomb. Today that figure has surpassed 200,000.
Yamane survived, amazingly with no injuries, by immersing himself in the river. Then he rushed to Ujina Port to tell his superiors what had happened.
On his way, he recalled, he saw virtually nothing — no living creatures, no trees, no houses. “It was just very quiet,” he said.
Japanese army officers at the port told him ships were being ordered to skip Hiroshima and head to Nagasaki 187 miles southwest.
“I took a freight train to Nagasaki because it was the only transportation operating,” Yamane said.
He arrived the evening of Aug. 8 and on Aug. 9 was detailed to transport weapons and detonators from a train station storage yard to a nearby school field for loading onto ships. He was piloting a small landing ship when he raised his eyes and saw a large aircraft in the distance.
“The plane … again dropped a parachute,” he said. “I thought it was the same thing I experienced in Hiroshima.”
He ordered his soldiers to lie down below the landing ship’s railings. As he crouched near the pilot house, Yamane said, he felt the same hot breeze as three days earlier in Hiroshima.
This time a second atomic weapon, “Fat Man,” unleashed fires and radioactive winds that instantly destroyed much of the port city, killing more than 70,000 before year’s end.
Yamane said he again saw in Nagasaki what he saw in Hiroshima: a vast emptiness. “My feet felt too hot to walk, and it was so frighteningly quiet,” he said.
Returning to his garrison seemingly untouched by the bomb’s destruction, Yamane soon found himself ridiculed by fellow soldiers. “They said my left eyebrow was missing, and when I touched my right eyebrow, the hair fell out,” he said.
Yamane said he returned to his home in Sasayama that November — only to suffer delayed effects of the bombings. The day after returning home, he tried to stand up — and could not.
That started a long period of medical treatments. Weeks later, at a barber shop, pus was discovered oozing from the pores on his head. Japanese doctors used penicillin, the drug of choice at the time to treat what now is known to be radiation sickness.
Ten years later, as early medical effects from the atomic bombings diminished, Yamane became a carpenter. But other manifestations plagued him as he aged.
“One day I fell off a roof and lost consciousness after briefly looking at the sun,” he said. Whenever he looked at a very strong light, Yamane said, he’d lose consciousness. Because of that, he said, he preferred living in darker places.
Yamane said he also suffered from peoples’ prejudices against bomb victims. Many thought the after-effects were contagious, he said; his daughter’s fiancé broke the engagement after learning of her father’s exposure to the bombs.
As an A-bomb survivor, he is eligible for government-paid medical treatment. Yamane said he prefers instead using a hospital close to his home. “I am too old and asking the government is silly,” he reasoned. Still of sharp mind, he lives with his wife, Shizue. They have two grandchildren.
Even as a Japanese soldier, Yamane said, he had reservations: “All our soldiers knew the war against America could not be won.” He still opposes Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s periodic visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are enshrined.
Yamane said instead of appealing to the government for compensation, “I would rather appeal to the people about the folly of the war and the miserable experiences of atomic weapon victims.”