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Posted: 8/15/2007 2:25:12 PM EDT

The Most Famous Photographer You Never Heard Of -- Who Harbored a Horrific 'Secret' -- Dies at 85

AP Photo/The Tennessean, Sam Parrish, File
Joe O'Donnell

By Greg Mitchell

Published: August 15, 2007 11:40 AM ET

NEW YORK He took some of the most famous news photos of our time but, as White House photographer from Truman to Johnson, his name was usually not attached to them and he was never widely known. But when Joe O’Donnell passed away six days ago in Nashville at the age of 85, he earned obit mention. He never worked for a newspaper, but thousands of them carried his iconic photos (to name just two) of FDR, Stalin and Churchill at Yalta, and John-John Kennedy saluting his father’s casket.

But I came to know him, about a dozen years ago, in a quite different context.

It had just emerged that O’Donnell was one of the first military photographers into Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombings and, still haunted, he had dug out some of his old images out of storage and was using them to make an antinuclear statement. I interviewed him for the book I was writing with Robert Jay Lifton, “Hiroshima in America.”

O’Donnell told me flatly that he had long suffered from horrific medical effects that some doctors tied to radiation exposure in 1945. He described tumors, two 18” rods in his back, 12 feet of colon removed.

Another thing: O’Donnell gave me something of a scoop, mentioned in our book and widely published since.

It has long been said that President Truman always claimed that he had no second thoughts about ordering the use of the atomic bomb on two cities, killing about 250,000 people, 90% of them civilians. For our book, we researched the matter anew, and found that this was mainly, though not completely, true.

O’Donnell’s story was that he had been walking with Truman on a Wake Island beach in 1950. Truman had gone there for his key meeting with General McArthur to discuss the Korean war (O’Donnell would take another historic photo documenting that). The president, in his usual blunt way, told the press corps he had to walk away and “take a piss.” When he returned, in this informal atmosphere, O’Donnell worked up the nerve to tell him he had taken photos in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and asked if he had ever had second thoughts before the atomic-bombing.

“Hell, yes!” Truman replied loudly, according to O’Donnell. “And I’ve had a lot of misgivings about it.” That seemed clear enough, but then Truman added, “and I inherited a lot more, too.” O’Donnell never could figure out what he meant by that. In any case, it seems he had kept this incident pretty much to himself until he talked to me.

O’Donnell himself had some misgivings, although they were not given full play until a few years before I interviewed him in 1994.

He had witnessed horrific scenes in Nagasaki and Hiroshimas, mainly involving the charred corpses of schoolchildren, some still sitting at their desks. He took official photos for the military with one camera, and turned over the negatives. Few were ever shown to the press or public.

But he also took about 100 photos for his personal use with a separate camera, and smuggled them back to the U.S. in boxes labled "photographic papers." But these troubled him so greatly, he came home and locked them in a trunk – for decades. “I didn’t want to deal with it,” he told me. “Kids with no eyes, men with no tongues trying to talk.” Meanwhile, he would capture for the world Nixon's "kitchen" debate with Khruschev, JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream."

He didn’t dig out the atomic photos until he had a vision of what he should do with them during a visit to a religious retreat in Kentucky in the late 1980s. This led him to try to get them published. As he told me: “Pictures don’t lie.”

Turned down, by dozens of U.S. publishers, he got them printed in Japan (he sent me an autographed copy of the booklet), and he organized gallery showings and lectures in several other countries, starting in the mid-1990s. Later the photos did appear in book form in our country.

O’Donnell said that he had come to believe that use of the bomb was unnecessary – that Japan was close to surrender. What he saw in his travels in Japan in 1945 proved this to him, as he observed the pathetic state of the homeland and its lack of ability and resources to carry on. “I recognize Pearl Harbor,” he told me, “but I regret we took it out on civilians."

Greg Mitchell (gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor. He is co-author of "Hiroshima in America" and others books, the former editor of Nuclear Times magazine and adviser on the award-winning film, "Original Child Bomb."

Link Posted: 8/15/2007 3:56:45 PM EDT
Funny how all the nuclear activists who are quick to use Hiroshima and Nagasaki for their purpose seem to totally forget about the terrorist attack that started it all. Up until 2001, Pearl Harbor was the terrorist attach causing the most deaths of innocent citizens (we were not at war).
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