Weird History The Tragic Story Behind The Single Most Depressing Image Of World War II  

Noelle Talmon
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There is a photograph of a little boy at a funeral pyre in WWII that burns itself into the consciousnesses of those who see it. It's a poignant image, one that captures, in an instant, the tragic distinctions between those who died and those who survived the bombings in Japan and lived to tell the tale. The Japanese boy at a funeral pyre is particularly captivating because it demonstrates how one so young was somehow able to dig deep inside and honor his little brother, who didn't survive the Nagasaki bombing.

While this young man's life was forever changed, so was that of the photographer, Joe O'Donnell, who was tasked with documenting the atomic bomb's aftermath. He was forced to pay witness to the horrifying effects of nuclear radiation – only to feel the results of the poison himself in his later years.

The Japanese funeral pyre in WWII was just one of many disturbing episodes O'Donnell encountered while walking among the debris and destruction caused by the atomic bombs. He was so deeply affected by what he saw, he couldn't bring himself to look at the images he took until decades after the war ended.

The Boy Was Taking His Dead Brother To A Cremation Pyre


The Boy Was Taking His Dead Br... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Tragic Story Behind The Single Most Depressing Image Of World War II
Photo: Rare Historical Photos/No Restrictions

The image shows a boy of about 10 years old carrying his dead brother on his back. The boy stands tall as he prepares to take his younger sibling to his final resting place – a cremation pyre. The boy's posture indicates that he is trying to be strong like the Japanese military, even though he is not yet a man. The image is distressing because the young man looks so brave following such a horrible event.

Photographer Joe O'Donnell said of taking the image:

“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 Boy Stayed To Watch His Baby Brother's Body Burn


The Boy Stayed To Watch His Ba... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Tragic Story Behind The Single Most Depressing Image Of World War II
Photo: Rare Historical Photos/No Restrictions

The boy didn't simply leave his brother at the pyre and walk away. He stayed to watch his body burn. The boy showed no emotion, but he drew blood by biting his lower lip so hard.

Photographer Joe O'Donnell recalled:

“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."

The Photo Was Taken In Nagasaki Where Thousands Of Citizens Were Killed, Maimed, And Poisoned By Radiation


The Photo Was Taken In Nagasak... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Tragic Story Behind The Single Most Depressing Image Of World War II
Photo: Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When the United States bombed Nagasaki in 1945, many areas of the city were destroyed. Even though the medical facilities were left partially intact, there was no one around to administer assistance. Many Japanese citizens were killed instantly, while others suffered horribly from radiation burns. Witnesses described survivors with skin peeling off their bodies, huge blisters on their chests, and monstrous facial deformities.

According to the Nagasaki Prefectural Office, 70% of Nagasaki's industrial area was incinerated, and 87,000 people died. The United States initially concluded that 35,000 people died.

Bodies Were Piled Into Wagons Before They Were Dumped Into A Big Hole To Be Burned


Bodies Were Piled Into Wagons ... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Tragic Story Behind The Single Most Depressing Image Of World War II
Photo: Rare Historical Photos/No Restrictions

Marine photographer Joe O'Donnell traveled to Nagasaki from Sasebo and visited ground zero to document the effects of the bomb on the city. At one point, he was on a hill looking around and noticed a group of men wearing white masks next to a large hole about two-feet deep. He watched as they removed corpses from a wagon and placed them in the hole and burned them. That is also where he spotted "the boy standing by the crematory."