One of the most iconic images of the Nagasaki atom bomb was of a young mother breastfeeding her dying child as they wait for emergency treatment on the day after the atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1941.
The photo was taken by Imperial Army photographer Yamahata Yosuke who was ordered to visit and photograph Nagasaki the day after the bomb dropped.
The woman in the photo was Tanaka Kio (田中キヲ) who has died of pneumonia on Dec. 9, 2006. She was 91. The child in the photo was her 4-month-old second son who died 11 days later. She also lost her eldest son. She and her two sons were in the rice paddy about 2 km from the epicenter.
She led a low-key life, working as a vegetable grower and seller in Nagasaki. She was a sweet and gentle woman. Her passing has been widely reported on national news in Japan.
We offer our deepest condolences to her family.
More photos here:
In 2005, I did some research about a few people in Yamahata’s photographs. Here is the entry for Tanaka Kio. The information is based on NHK TV’s program titled, “NHK Special: Nagasaki Eizo no Shogen” (Nagasaki–Testimony of Pictures) (first broadcast in 1995) and NHK’s book titled, “Nagasaki Yomigaeru Genbaku Shashin” (Nagasaki–Atomic Bomb Photographs Recalled).
Mother breastfeeding baby
This famous photo shows 30-year-old Kio Tanaka with her four-month-old son Yoshihiro. They were waiting for medical treatment at the first-aid station in front of Michinoo Station. Yamahata took five shots of this mother and child.
She was living 1.8 km north of the hypocenter with her husband and his parents, her three children, and a younger brother. Her husband worked at the Mitsubishi shipyard, but they were a farming family with fields and paddies.
She had a 6-year-old son, 5-year-old daughter, and infant son Yoshihiro.
That morning, her husband and his mother went to a fishing village beyond a mountain while Kio stayed home. After the air raid siren stopped, she and her father-in-law went to weed a paddy 500 meters from the house.
Then there was a yellow flash and they fell to the ground. She ran back to the house to check on the baby. The house was on fire, and she found the baby had been thrown from the entrance foyer to the kitchen. He was badly burned and black.
Her older son, who was catching dragonflies nearby with a friend, suffered burns all over and came home. Her 5-year-old daughter was also playing outside and just arrived home when the bomb exploded. She was also burned badly.
Kio also saw her father-in-law’s shirt burning. He put it out, but he then yelled at her that her back was on fire too. She was so busy taking care of the children that she did not notice her back was on fire. They spent the night in the bomb shelter in front of the house.
Her burnt back was so painful that she could not sleep.
In the morning, they heard that there was a first-aid station at Michinoo Station so she put the children on a cart and the whole family walked to Michinoo Station.
Since all her clothes and shoes were burnt, she was given a kimono from a house that survived the fire and walked barefoot to Michinoo Station 1.8 km away. The ground was hot and her back hurt, but she endured and kept going. Along the road, they had to walk over collapsed homes, headless corpses, and dead horses. They got to Michinoo Station at about noon. The area in front of the station was full of people.
She was put on a straw mat, but people kept coming and crammed in line to wait for treatment. Tanaka mainly wanted her children to be treated rather than her burnt back.
They received riceballs. The baby suckled, but could not drink her milk. He had no strength to suck and drink. And no strength to cry either.
The doctor told her that the baby was half dead. She wondered whether her baby would die soon. That’s when Yamahata took her picture (five shots).
She remembers being photographed. He asked her to be photographed. She thinks that she had a child so that’s why he was photographing her.
The family went back home without any medicine or treatment method. Three children, Kio, and her father-in-law were badly burnt. The five went into the air raid shelter and remained bedridden in terrible pain.
Her first son couldn’t eat or drink and became too weak to eat the fruit her mother-in-law found for him. He died on Aug. 12, three days after the bomb. And baby Yoshihiro only worsened every day and died on Aug. 21.
Her husband and mother-in-law who escaped the bomb, found a board and made a coffin for the two children who were then cremated.
Yamahata’s photo was the only photo ever taken of Yoshihiro. But she cannot bear to look at the photo. The memory is too painful.
After the war, she raised four children. Since her husband’s income was not enough to make ends meet after losing everything, she continued to grow and sell vegetables. She worked on her vegetable field from 8 am to sunset. During harvest time, she would pick the vegetables and load it onto a cart to sell to people. She was still doing this in 1995 at age 80.
In 1976, an anonymous postcard was received by the Nagasaki City Hall saying that the woman in the picture was still living in Nagasaki. Her address was also written. The picture had been displayed at the Nagasaki atomic bomb museum since 1973.