- Historic Sites
“A Straight Path Through Hell ”
Stationed near Nagasaki at the close of the war, a young photographer ventured into the devastated city, and stayed for months
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
One day I met a Japanese photographer who had shot three pictures of the bomb explosion. I asked him why he hadn’t shot more, and he answered, “It was too horrible.” I got to be friendly with him, and he told me, “Be careful with your negatives. The military will take them. They took my film, they took my cameras, they took every record I made.”
The Marines had issued me a camera back in the States. Then, in the best bureaucratic tradition, they issued me another one. I put them both in my trunk and kept them there. A Speed Graphic is heavy—it must weigh six or seven pounds—but its 4-by-5-inch negatives make really sharp enlargements, better than any 35-millimeter camera. Carrying one Speed Graphic by shoulder strap was bad enough. But since I had to send one set of negatives to Pearl Harbor to be developed and then to Washington, I hauled both cameras with me. When I got a shot I wanted, I usually took two pictures, one for the Marines and one for me.
I had a room in the barracks set up as a darkroom. I had my own trays, my own chemicals. Since I could not control the temperature of the water, which needs to be 68 degrees, I couldn’t develop by the clock. I had to do it by inspection. I got to where I could use the reflected light of the full moon to examine the negatives without fogging them. I’d put a negative in the chemicals for a while, take it over to the window, open the curtain and inspect it, take it back to the tray again, and so forth. After I was satisfied with the exposure, I would rinse the negative, put a hole in one corner, and hang it on the branch of a tree to dry. The guys in the barracks thought it was all official.
I took a picture of three little kids with a wagon. I don’t know where they got it. Things like that were generally destroyed or confiscated. They may have made it out of an old box and wheels. I had no candy to give them but I did have an apple. I gave it to the biggest, who almost tore my hand off grabbing for it. He took a couple of bites, then gave it to the next one, who took a bite and passed it on. I could hardly watch; as soon as the skin of the apple was taken off, black flies descended on it. The kids ate the skin, the core, the flies, everything.
No one on our side quite knew how to react to the atomic bomb, whether to be open and proud of it or secretive and ashamed.
One day I saw a line of people standing outside next to a desk from a destroyed building. Their clothes were burned; their faces were burned. A guy was sitting there writing, taking down lists of names. The people in line were pretty sad-looking; sometimes, if they had been facing sideways when the bomb exploded, only one side of the face would be burned.
I often get asked about the number of bodies. There were no bodies; there were bones. What was left of the flesh, if it survived, the crows got. The crows hated to be shoved away. I’d yell, “Get out of here, yah, yah!” The crows made it impossible for the planes to land sometimes.
I don’t think average Japanese citizens knew exactly what had happened. They had seen something in the sky, an airplane, and all of a sudden the bomb went off. With the language difference, they couldn’t say much to me except in sign language or broken English. They did not appear to be resentful, there was no “Yankee Go Home.” They just seemed stunned, numb.
I acquired a horse, which I named Boy. I had been riding in a jeep with Johnson outside the city and I saw a farmer who had horses. There was a big one with white hair, and I pointed to him. The farmer looked at us and said, “Boy, Boy, Boy. Big horse. You pay?” I ended up trading cigarettes for the horse. He wanted 100 packs; we compromised on about 20.
For the next seven months I rode that horse, strapping my heavy cameras to the saddle. Boy not only made it easier to get around the city, he offered a good vantage point for my photographs. Sometimes I wouldn’t even dismount to take the picture. And, riding Boy, I didn’t have to step on the bones when I walked around town.
I met a boy about 12 years old who had lost a leg and walked with a crutch. I could see that the crutch was too big for him. I told him to come to me and sit down. When I took out my knife, he protested, “No, no, no.” “Wait a minute,” I said. “It’s O.K.” I took about six inches off the bottom and gave the crutch back to him.
He walked about 10 or 15 feet, turned around, and flashed a big grin. “O.K., O.K.,” he said. We became good friends.
For a while I lived in an abandoned house and kept Boy inside with me. The Japanese would eat horses, so I was careful; I asked my friend One Leg to feed Boy, walk him, and keep an eye on him. One day near the end of my time in Nagasaki, One Leg didn’t come, so I went to his grandmother’s house. She answered the door, and I asked for One Leg. She pointed to her leg, then put her head like she was sleeping and pointed up. I couldn’t believe it, but apparently he had died from infection. The grandmother ushered me inside the house, where the entire family was kneeling facing a candlelit wall. I knelt beside them at their memorial for One Leg. Finally the grandmother got up, went to the back of the room, and returned with what I thought was a sword. She presented it to me: One Leg’s crutch.