Thursday, February 10, 2011

McLean and Yamaguchi: Two Fateful Lives

History is full of big events as well as countless vignettes of individuals, famous and obscure.  And although the study of history can be instructive, it also can provide some fascinating stories, some of which might seem unbelievable even in novels.  Two such examples are the wartime odysseys of Wilmer McLean and Tsutomu Yamaguchi.

McLean’s story is that of the U.S. Civil War.  He was a grocer and later a farmer who moved to a small plantation near Manassas, Virginia, in 1854.  At the time, the tension between the North and South was accelerating and would soon enter its climactic phase. 

The final trigger for war was the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, in November 1860.  Within months, the Confederate States of America was formed and Fort Sumter, South Carolina, was bombarded.

Soon, the two sides were spoiling for an actual battle.  The armies eventually did clash in July 1861 at Manassas, not far from Washington, D.C.  And McLean’s house was a focal point of the battle.  Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, in fact, was visiting when hostilities began. 

With McLean’s approval, the general seized the residence as his headquarters.  Fighting took place all around the property and the house also was used as a hospital.  This First Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run) began four years of bloody war.

McLean decided to protect his family and relocate to an area where he would be spared first-hand fighting.  He chose a sleepy town in southwestern Virginia, about 125 miles away.  And it was there, near Appomattox Court House, that the final skirmish of the war took place.  On April 9, 1865, Generals Grant and Lee signed the surrender papers—in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s new home. 

McLean is reputed to have said, “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”  After the war ended, he returned to Manassas.

Eighty years later and half a world away, Tsutomu Yamaguchi had an equally unlikely experience. Yamaguchi, who worked for Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, was on assignment at Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb was dropped there on August 6, 1945. 

Injured and badly burned, Yamaguchi took a train home—to Nagasaki.  On August 9 as he was describing his horrific ordeal to a coworker, the second atomic bomb was dropped nearby.  In a 2009 interview, he said, “I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima.”

Although others were present at both blasts, Yamaguchi is the only officially identified nijū hibakusha—double-bomb victim—by the Japanese government.  He also was one of the very few so close to ground zero in both instances.

Yamaguchi served as a personal witness to the bombs and discussed their ill effects for the rest of his life.  Although he died at the age of 93 in 2010, he and his family suffered from a number of significant illnesses.

While these two examples are extraordinary, history is replete with stories of ordinary people inexplicably caught up in the turmoil of war or other fateful events.  Indeed, stories such as McLean’s and Yamaguchi’s cannot be made up, and that is what makes history so riveting.

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