Masami Onuka

Masami Onuka photographs on August 7, 1945, Hiroshima.

Masumi Onuka

Masumi Onuka c. 1940

Japan’s sovereignty was restored in 1952 with the end of the Allied Occupation. That summer the cover of the August 6 edition of the “Asahi Graph” magazine featured a headline that read: “First look at A-bomb devastation.” The issue was reprinted several times, and ultimately about 700,000 copies were issued.

At the top of the feature article were three graphic photos of hibakusha, including one of a soldier who was burned all over his body and another of a woman whose back was hideously burned. There were no photo credits, but all three shots were taken by Masami Onuka, a member of the photographic team of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Shipping Command, which was based in Ujina (now part of Minami Ward).

Mr. Onuka was born in what is now Onan-cho in Shimane Prefecture. He was employed at a photography studio in Miyoshi in northern Hiroshima Prefecture. He became a member of the photographic team in 1941. He was also sent to the front lines in the South Pacific but returned safely.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, he was receiving instructions in the front courtyard of the Gaisenkan, the building in Ujina that housed the offices of the shipping command. Mr. Onuka’s story is among the accounts of those who photographed the destruction caused by the atomic bombing that were included in Volume 5 of “Record of the A-Bomb Disaster” issued by the City of Hiroshima in 1971. “Suddenly there was an intense yellow light right in front of my eyes and then a tremendous roar that resonated in my belly,” Mr. Onuka said.

At the orders of his superior, that day he went in search of his 60-year-old mother, Makino, who lived in Minami-machi (now part of Minami Ward). There was no one at home, so he headed for his sister’s house in Hirano-machi (now part of Naka Ward), but it was in flames and he could not get inside. “I had seen a lot of terrible things on the front lines on Bougainville, but this was much worse.”

He was ordered to take photos on August 7. A temporary field hospital had been set up at the army quarantine station on Ninoshima Island off Ujina. “On the order of an army doctor, I took a lot of photos, including shots of people who had been horribly burned and dead bodies that had been gathered in one place.”

In 1985, in response to a request from Yoshito Matsushige, eight photographers, including Mr. Onuka, gathered for a videotaped interview with the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation. In the interview Mr. Onuka described how he felt about having been ordered to take photos.

“It was an order, but I hesitated,” he said. “When taking the photos, I would catch the eyes [of the wounded]. It was upsetting, and I couldn’t bring myself to take their pictures. So the army doctor ordered me to do it. I took a photo of the soldier who was unburned where his bellyband had been. But when our eyes met I felt guilty.”

He continued to take photos from August 7 on using a view camera, a Mamiyaflex and a Leica. On August 8, he accompanied members of the Kempeitai military police to relief stations in Hijiyama and Danbara (now parts of Minami Ward). He also took photos at the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital and Fukuya department store (in what is now Naka Ward). Everywhere he went, he looked for his mother, but he was unable to find her.

At the end of the war the negatives of Mr. Onuka’s photographs documenting the devastation caused by the A-bombing met an unexpected fate: they were incinerated along with confidential documents.

But Yotsugi Kawahara, another member of the Shipping Command’s photographic team, had secretly kept 23 prints. (Mr. Kawahara died in 1972 at the age of 49.) Keisuke Misonoo, an army doctor who came to Hiroshima on August 14 to conduct a survey for the Army Ministry, kept 52 photos taken by the photographic team. (Mr. Misonoo died in 1995 at the age of 82.) The existence of these prints was discovered in 2005.

After the war Mr. Onuka opened a photography studio in Kawamoto, Shimane Prefecture, which adjoins his hometown, and had a family. The studio was taken over by his son Hidenori, 64.

From a young age he was accustomed to seeing his father quietly taking photos of local residents at weddings and on other special occasions. “My father never said much to us about what had happened in Hiroshima,” he said.

Mr. Onuka did not refer to himself as a photographer of the atomic bombing, but when the Association of Photographers of the Atomic Bomb Destruction of Hiroshima was formed in 1978, he joined. In the 1990s, at the request of a local elementary school, he described his experiences to the students.

Until his later years he went to Hiroshima every August 6 to attend the Peace Memorial Ceremony in memory of his mother, whose remains were never found.

As part of a survey conducted by the Health and Welfare Ministry to mark the 50th anniversary of the A-bombing in 1995, Mr. Onuka described the devastation he saw in Hiroshima while taking photographs and searching for his mother.

“I saw many victims in a miserable state: a boy crying in pain and begging me for water, a half-naked schoolgirl. When I looked at them through the viewfinder I couldn’t maintain my usual composure.” He also wrote, “I kept calling my mother’s name, but in the end I couldn’t find her.” He closed by saying, “I think my mother died so that I could live.”

Photo captions (Originally published on August 4, 2014)

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