Akira “George” Yoshitake, who died on Oct. 17 in Santa Barbara at the age of 84 due to complications from a stroke, was a witness to history in the form of several above-ground nuclear tests, which have since been banned.
Unlike many of his colleagues, he lived for many decades after that and was able to share his story with journalists, authors, and documentary filmmakers.
Born in Los Angeles in 1929, Yoshitake was the third-eldest of five children of Japanese immigrants. As a 5-year-old, he was a piano prodigy who was able to correctly name a key upon hearing it played from another room.
In 1942, Yoshitake, along with his parents and siblings, were among thousands of Japanese Americans sent to the Rohwer internment camp in Arkansas. Despite being surrounded by barbed wire and having few personal possessions, he managed to find simple pleasures in camp like snacking on baked yams and playing with friends. After the war, he returned to Los Angeles as a young teen.
He briefly served in the U.S. Air Force and later as a civilian photographer for the U.S. government, and shot the iconic “Ground Zero” photographs of five Army officers who stood underneath an atomic nuclear blast in the Nevada desert on July 19, 1957. He was not aware of what his assignment would entail until arriving at the test center that day.
The 2-kiloton MB-1 nuclear rocket, launched from an F-89 Scorpion interceptor, detonated in the air. In the film, one of the officers, wearing dark glasses, looks up as the warhead explodes.
According to Seattle/Tacoma-based NPR station KPLU, the intent of the test was to film the officers surviving the blast and convince U.S. military leaders that using low-grade nuclear missiles in the air would be relatively safe for people on the ground.
“I had a call saying they needed me out for a special test,” the cameraman told FoxNews.com. “I found out when I got to Nevada that I was going to be standing at Ground Zero. It was going to explode 10,000 feet above my head …
“I asked what kind of protective gear I was going to have, and they said, ‘Nothing.’ I had a baseball cap with me, and I said, ‘I better wear that just in case.’”
So with no protective gear, Yoshitake and the five volunteers waited for what they called the “genie shot.”
“I never really gave it too much thought,” Yoshitake said when asked if he was fearful. “When you’re young, you think you’re invincible and nothing is going to happen to you.”
Despite the fact that his parents were from Japan, Yoshitake expressed no hard feelings about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the experiment he was a part of.
“I thought dropping the bomb was necessary for ending the war as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s too bad it was the Japanese who had to suffer.”
All six members of the group later developed cancer, with four dying of it, according to Yoshitake, who had stomach cancer, and fellow survivor Maj. Don Luttrell, who had colon cancer.
“In those days, nobody thought there could be any fear of developing cancer from these nuclear tests,” said Yoshitake. “But … there must be some direct correlation between these tests and cancer.”
At the same time, he said, “It’s quite amazing that all that took place and I was a part of history. I’m glad I was able to be a part of it.”
The test was one of many that the government conducted with live participants in close proximity. More than 200 atmospheric blasts were set off between 1946 and 1962. Yoshitake was involved in several such tests in Nevada and the Pacific, standing anywhere from 5 to 20 miles from Ground Zero.
In a 2010 interview with The New York Times, he said of the cameramen who chronicled those explosions, “Quite a few have died from cancer. No doubt it was related to the testing.” Most of his colleagues who died were in their 40s and 50s.
Some blasts involved live animals. Yoshitake recalled seeing pigs that had been exposed to the fiery explosion: “Some were still squealing. You could smell the meat burning. It made you sick. I thought, ‘Oh, how terrible. If they were humans they would have suffered terribly.’”
He also remembered witnessing the hydrogen bomb, which was about 1,000 times more powerful than an A-bomb: “The purple glow in the sky — that was so eerie. And we were not even close, about 20 miles away. It filled the whole sky.”
Yoshitake belonged to a secret film unit whose headquarters in Laurel Canyon included a sound stage, screening rooms, processing labs, animation gear, film vaults, and a staff of more than 250 producers, directors and cameramen.
“The neighbors were suspicious because the lights were on all night long,” Yoshitake told The Times.
The photos and films were top secret at the time but have since been declassified and featured in such documentaries as “Countdown to Zero” and “Nuclear Tipping Point” and such books as “How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb.”
Yoshitake said the images would improve public understanding of the nuclear threat. “It’s a good thing to show the horror,” he commented, adding that it was “scary” that the nations of the world have more than 20,000 nuclear weapons.
Yoshitake lived in Montebello with his wife and children until 1966, when he was transferred to Lompoc as assistant operations officer of the 1369 Audiovisual Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base. During his tenure, he received the Aerospace Audio-Visual Service Civilian of the Year award in 1971. He retired in 1985.
Bored with retirement, he joined the Lompoc Unified School District in 1987 as a school bus driver and was affectionately known as “Mr. Yosh.” He established a video production company called Video Creations in 1995 and filmed events, weddings and Lompoc High School football games. After running the business for more than a decade, he sold it to take care of his ailing wife June, who passed away in 2011 after 53 years of marriage.
Known for his outgoing, upbeat and friendly personality, as well as his willingness to help others, Yoshitake served as treasurer of the Santa Maria Japanese Community Center, a board member of the Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ, and PTA board member of his children’s schools.
According to his daughter Dawn, the stomach cancer scare inspired Yoshitake to travel in the last few years of his life, journeying to China, Japan and Hawaii. He had been scheduled to go to Panama on Oct. 18.
“Obviously, I am upset about him passing, but I am very glad he was able to pass here in the U.S.,” his daughter told The Lompoc Record. “My brothers and I were able to see him before he passed away. For that, we are thankful he was here.”
He is survived by a brother, James Yoshitake of Montebello; a sister, Yuri Imamura of Cupertino; and three children, Steve Yoshitake (Cheryl) of Lompoc, Dawn Kawamoto (Jon) of Albany, and Glen Yoshitake (Lisa) of San Diego; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A service for George and June Yoshitake was held on Nov. 16 at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier.