Photo/IllutrationA card featuring a photo titled “The boy standing by the crematory” that Catholic churches in Japan circulated after Pope Francis distributed it to church officials (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NAGASAKI--A boy about the age of 10 with his little brother—-who appears to be dead--tied to his back, stands at attention, staring straight ahead, patiently waiting in line at a makeshift outdoor crematorium.

U.S. military photographer Joe O’Donnell captured this scene in Nagasaki after the U.S. atomic bombing of the city on Aug. 9, 1945.

The image, titled “The boy standing by the crematory,” has become one of the most powerful images of war atrocities, so much so that Pope Francis in 2017 shared the image among church officials around the world.

Francis is expected to send a message regarding nuclear weapons when he visits Nagasaki on Nov. 24. Church officials plan to display a card featuring the photograph.

Despite many efforts to find out the boy's name, his identity remains unknown, more than 70 years later.

But as the city awaits Francis's visit, hopes are up to find the boy.


Masanori Muraoka, an 85-year-old Catholic in Nagasaki, has long wondered if a boy he ran into amid the chaos after the bombing was the same one in the famous picture.

Muraoka was at a location about 1.6 kilometers from the blast center of the atomic explosion on the fateful summer day. He took shelter on the hill near a school. There he saw the boy.

“I saw him carrying a little child on his back, in the same manner as the boy in the image,” Muraoka recalled. “When our eyes met, he came toward me.”

Muraoka called out to the boy, who responded, “I’m looking for my mother,” and then left.

Muraoka remembered he and the boy played together several times in the schoolyard of the school he was attending at the time.

Muraoka believes they were about the same age, somewhere around 10. The boy could have been a transfer student, Muraoka said. But he can't recall the boy’s name.

During the end of the holiday season in 2017, Francis told church officials and others that he was deeply moved by the image and that it demonstrated the horrors of war better than thousands of words could ever do.

Catholic churches in Japan also circulated the image in August 2018.

Muraoka came to think, “I have to share what I know.”

Last year, Muraoka declared, “I think I know him.”

He then began looking for the boy himself, visiting the area where he saw him after the bombing.

Bit by bit he has expanded the scope of the search, going outside Nagasaki, and trying to assemble clues based on the memories of people he interviewed.

But Muraoka has so far been unable to track him down.


O’Donnell, who might have been able to assist Muraoka, passed away in 2007.

In a book of his photos, O’Donnell, who was stationed in Nagasaki after the war's end, described the boy as about age 10 and the child on his back as under 2. He omitted the location where he took the photo and other specific information.

Tetsuo Ohara, 72, who edited the book, spoke about the photo on Nov. 16 at a lecture in Fukuoka.

“Witnessing hideously cruel scenes led Joe (O’Donnell) to the strong belief that war should never happen again,” Ohara said. “I’m sure he wanted to convey that (the atomic bombing of Nagasaki) should never have happened against mankind.”

After O’Donnell’s photo of the boy was donated to Nagasaki, city officials in 2007 consulted photographic researchers at the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace to find out more about it.

The team spoke with two citizens who contacted them about the photo, but the information they had was not enough to identify the boy and the location where the picture was taken.

But the researchers haven't given up.

They were encouraged in 2016 after the subject of another famed image taken near the hypocenter of the Nagasaki bombing was identified.

An examination connected the body of a boy in the photo known as “The Burned Corpse of A Boy,” to a relative still living.

Sei Matsuda, 64, who heads the team at the foundation, wonders why the mystery surrounding O’Donnell’s picture has yet to be solved.

“The face of the boy standing at the crematory is very clearly captured. Yet, we don’t know who he is,” Matsuda said. “It's unusual.”

Mountains and farms are visible behind the boy in the photo. Charred power lines are seen strewn on the ground.

“There are many trees,” Yoshitoshi Fukahori, 90, a team member and atomic bomb survivor himself, pointed out in the picture.

Based on the clue, he said, “I know for sure that the location is not anywhere near the blast center.”

“But I can’t say for sure,” he admitted, adding, “there's no evidence that the picture was actually taken in Nagasaki; nor any evidence to say otherwise.”

For Fukahori, who has studied pictures of the destruction of the atomic bombs and their victims for 40 years, the image of the boy still stands out.

“It is an important picture that has so much power to move people’s hearts. I hope to find out where it was taken to shed light on the picture’s background story,” he said.

(This article was written by Rika Yuminaga, Mayuri Ito and Toko Tanaka.)