Japan in My Trunk

Japan in My Trunk

Product Description

Japan in My Trunk
Japan in my trunk, or Japan 1945, 1995

Joseph (Joe) Roger O'Donnell (1922-2007) was an American documentarian, photojournalist and a photographer for the United States Information Agency. Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, his most famous work was documenting photographically the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb explosions at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 and 1946 as a Marine photographer. He died in Nashville, Tennessee.

A controversy followed the printing of his obituary in the press. Some of the photographs that had been attributed to O'Donnell were actually shot by other photographers. A photograph of a saluting John F. Kennedy Jr. during the funeral for his father in 1963 was taken by Stanley Stearns for United Press International, not by O'Donnell. O'Donnell also claimed credit for a photograph showing Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill during a wartime meeting in Tehran, Iran, in 1943, but O'Donnell is not known to have been in Tehran at the time. O'Donnell's son Tyge O'Donnell attributes some of the instances of his father's taking credit for others' work to the onset of dementia in the 1990s.

Mr. O'Donnell was a 23-year-old Marine sergeant when he was assigned to document the effects of bombings and spent seven months photographing the devastation in Japan. His first subject was Nagasaki, much of which had been destroyed by an atomic bomb on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after Hiroshima was similarly hit.

One was of a boy carrying his dead brother to a crematorium. Another showed a classroom of children sitting at their desks, all burned to cinders. In others, faces were ripped away. Mr. O'Donnell also ventured to Hiroshima and to cities bombed with conventional weapons. He carried two cameras. With one, he took pictures for the military. With the other, he took pictures for himself. When he returned home, he put the negatives of his own photos in a trunk and locked it, emotionally unable to look at them.

When he finally could, nearly a half-century later, he was so repulsed that he began protesting nuclear arms. In 1995, he published in Japan a book of many of those photos and, a decade later, one in the United States.

Mr. O'Donnell's work was caught up in controversy in 1995, before the National Air and Space Museum exhibited the Enola Gay, the B-29 that had bombed Hiroshima. His images were supposed to demonstrate the bombs' horrific effects, but veterans objected that the photos and the words others had written to accompany them gave an unbalanced view that neglected both Japan's aggression and the bombs' role in ending the war.

The photographs were stricken from curators' plans, as were other features that offended veterans. In an interview that year with National Public Radio, Mr. O'Donnell contended that, given what he had seen immediately after the war, Japan could have been defeated with conventional arms and without the hundreds of thousands of American casualties that an invasion had been expected to entail.

Joseph Roger O'Donnell was born in Johnstown, Pa. After high school, he joined the Marines and was sent to photography school. On Aug. 28, 1945, his unit was among the first to enter Japan. The unit was sent to a position about 10 miles from Nagasaki, he said in an article he wrote for American Heritage magazine in 2005.

Access to the bombed cities was limited, so Mr. O'Donnell walked to Nagasaki to take pictures that a superior had ordered. He noticed the putrid smell, then the absence of things: "No bird, no wind blowing, nothing to make you think there had once been a real city here."

Once in Nagasaki, he bartered 20 packs of cigarettes for a horse he named Boy. He lived in an abandoned house with the horse, which he used to navigate the rubble, and gave chocolate to children who posed for him.

Many years afterward, in the late 1980s, he attended a religious retreat in Kentucky, where he saw a nun's sculpture of a flame-scarred Christ on the cross, a work meant to evoke Hiroshima. He bought the statue, opened his long-locked trunk, and began protesting.

One of Mr. O'Donnell's pleasures as White House photographer was the intimacy that he shared with presidents.

In the National Public Radio interview he gave more than 10 years ago, he told of having summoned his courage to ask Truman, while walking on a Wake Island beach in 1950, whether he had ever had second thoughts before the bombings of Japan.

"Hell, yes!" he recalled Truman responding. "And I've had a lot of misgivings afterwards."

Mr. O'Donnell was too shy to ask for clarification. "I don't know what he meant," he said.