A Japanese Boy Standing at Attention After Bringing His Dead Younger Brother to a Cremation Pyre, 1945

By | April 25, 2017

Joe O’Donnell, the man who took the iconic photo below at Nagasaki, was sent by the U.S. military to chronicle the damage inflicted on Japanese soil by air raids of fire and atomic bombs. For a period of seven months starting September 1945, he traveled across Western Japan documenting the devastation, revealing the plight of the bomb victims - the dead, the wounded, the homeless and the orphaned. The human suffering he witnessed was etched both on his negatives and his heart.

In the photo, the boy stands erect, having done his duty by bringing his dead little brother to a cremation ground. Standing at attention was obviously a military influence. Looking at the boy carrying his younger brother on his back, keeping a stiff upper lip, trying so hard to be brave is so heartbreaking. He has epitomized the spirit of a defeated nation.

Years later photographer Joe O’Donnell spoke to a Japanese interviewer about this picture:

“I saw a boy about ten years old walking by. He was carrying a baby on his back. In those days in Japan, we often saw children playing with their little brothers or sisters on their backs, but this boy was clearly different. I could see that he had come to this place for a serious reason. He was wearing no shoes. His face was hard. The little head was tipped back as if the baby were fast asleep. The boy stood there for five or ten minutes”.

“The men in white masks walked over to him and quietly began to take off the rope that was holding the baby. That is when I saw that the baby was already dead. The men held the body by the hands and feet and placed it on the fire. The boy stood there straight without moving, watching the flames. He was biting his lower lip so hard that it shone with blood. The flame burned low like the sun going down. The boy turned around and walked silently away”.

This story looks like the real-life 'Grave of the Fireflies", a Japanese movie from 1988. A tragic film about the struggle to survival of a young boy and his little sister in Japan during WW2. It’s a powerful movie and highly recommended to watch.