In September 1945, Joe O’Donnell, a 23-year-old U.S. Marine Corps photographer was ordered to document the results of the U.S. bombing raids not only on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also on places such as Sasebo, one of the 60 Japanese cities firebombed before the atomic blasts.
In addition to the official photographs, O’Donnell took some 300 pictures for himself. But upon his discharge and return to the United States he could not bear to look at them. The negatives were put into a trunk and there they remained for nearly half a century.
“The people I met,” he later recalled, “the suffering I witnessed and the scenes of incredible devastation taken by my camera caused me to question every belief I had previously held about my so-called enemies.”
The official photographs were for military use and were consequently suppressed. Throughout the occupation years the U.S. military denied access to photographic images of, particularly, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And later when some of the official photographs were to have been included into the Smithsonian Institution’s planned “Enola Gay” exhibition, observing the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, these too remained unseen. The entire event was scrapped on grounds of an insufficient triumphalism. Instead, visitors could look at the plane that did the damage, but were left unapprised of the damage itself.
O’Donnell had in the meantime become a White House photographer. It was he who photographed Jacqueline Kennedy in her bloodstained pink suit on Air Force One, and John-John saluting his father’s casket. But he also had that locked trunk, its negatives, its decades of memories.
“I was half afraid to look . . . the frightful images turned into real life scenes from my memory. I could see the victims with maggots covering their bodies, hear their cries for help, smell their burned flesh.” Still, in 1989, he opened the trunk, and from these 300 negatives made a selection that was originally published by Shogakukan in 1995. The present English-language edition contains all of these plus 20 more.
The historian John Dower, looking at this collection, notes the photographer’s “averted gaze.” O’Donnell shows us little that is in itself horrific. We do not see the burned flesh. Instead, we see three girls with kimono sleeves to their faces to shield them from the odor. The single exception is the horrifically burned back of a 14-year-old boy. But even there we are shielded from the full horror. A caption tells us that the child recovered from the burns, and that O’Donnell had the surprise and pleasure of meeting him again in Nagasaki 48 years later.
O’Donnell’s fears are in his memories, not in these images he has chosen to show us. Viewers are thus spared shock, but we are not spared sadness. The sight of people trying to get on with their lives amid ruin and poverty, the incredible devastation in which they lived — all of this is deeply moving.
At the Nagasaki crematorium, a very young barefoot boy stands at attention. On his back, carried as though still alive, is his dead baby brother. The boy stands in the military fashion, looking straight ahead because he doesn’t know where else to look, and bites his lower lip so he will not betray his emotion. It is an image not to be forgotten.
“Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing — may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.” These are the words of the late Susan Sontag in her last book, “Regarding the Pain of Others.”
O’Donnell could never forget what he saw, and we should never forget what he here shows us.
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