The Tragic Story Behind The Single Most Depressing Image Of WWII

This photograph of a little boy at a cremation pyre following the U.S.'s attack on Nagasaki etches itself into the consciousness of any viewer. In an instant, the photo captures the tragic distinctions between those who did and did not survive the nuclear attacks in Japan. The Japanese boy in the photo, shown carrying his deceased brother to the pyre – is particularly captivating; he demonstrates the often-dismissed courage and resilience of youth, even in the face of unfathomable heartbreak.

While this young man's life was permanently changed, so was that of the photographer, Joe O'Donnell, who was tasked with documenting the aftermath at Nagasaki. He was forced to pay witness to the horrifying effects of nuclear radiation – only to suffer some of those same effects in his later years.

The Japanese pyre of WWII was just one of many disturbing episodes O'Donnell encountered while walking among the wreckage caused by the Nagasaki attacks. He was so deeply affected by what he saw, he couldn't bring himself to look at the images he shot until decades after the conflict ended.


  • The Boy Was Taking His Deceased Brother To A Cremation Pyre

    The Boy Was Taking His Deceased Brother To A Cremation Pyre
    Photo: Press TV / Twitter

    The image shows a boy of about 10 carrying his 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 mimics that of the Japanese military, displaying strength even in his innocence.

    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 Brother's Body Burn

    The boy didn't simply leave his brother at the pyre – instead, he stayed to watch his body burn. The boy showed no emotion but drew blood from biting his lower lip.

    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 Followed The Attack On Nagasaki

    The Photo Followed The Attack On Nagasaki
    Photo: Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When the United States launched a nuclear attack on the Japaneses city of Nagasaki in 1945, most of the city was decimated. Although some medical facilities were left partially intact, there was no one left to administer assistance. Many Japanese citizens were killed instantly, while others suffered horribly from radiation burns. Witnesses described survivors with skin peeling from their bodies, huge blisters on their chests, and facial deformities that left them nearly unrecognizable.

    According to the Nagasaki Prefectural Office, 70% of Nagasaki's industrial area was incinerated, resulting in 87,000 casualties. The United States initially calculated a much lower estimate, claiming that 35,000 people perished from the attack.

  • Bodies Were Piled Into Wagons Prior To Cremation

    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 bodies from a wagon, placed them in the hole, and burned them.

    This scene is also where he spotted "the boy standing by the crematory."