“The Shanghai Baby” – The True Story Behind One of History’s Most Dramatic Photos

To this day, no one knows the name of the "Shanghai Baby" or even if he survived the injuries sustained during the Aug. 28, 1937 Japanese raid on the city. (Image source: Public Domain)

To this day, no one knows the name of the “Shanghai Baby” or even if he survived the injuries sustained during the Aug. 28, 1937 Japanese raid on the city. (Image source: Public Domain)

“The image was snapped moments after Japanese warplanes struck the city, which at the time was the sixth largest on earth. Hundreds were killed in the attack; scores more were wounded.”

TENS OF MILLIONS of Americans read the Oct. 4, 1937 edition of Life magazine.

Among the articles contained in the issue was one particularly arresting photograph.

The Oct. 4, 1937 edition of Life Magazine. (image source: Fair Use)

The Oct. 4, 1937 edition of Life Magazine. (image source: Fair Use)

It showed a lone infant sitting upright in the smoking ruins of a bombed out Shanghai railway station. The child, whose clothes appear to have been burned off, is clearly wailing in agony.

The image was snapped moments after Japanese warplanes struck the city, which at the time was the sixth largest metropolis on earth. Hundreds were killed in the attack; scores more were wounded.

The photograph struck a raw nerve in the United States when it was published. Until that moment, few Americans had paid much attention to the atrocities being committing by the Japanese army in its murderous march across China. As far as most westerners were concerned, the war in Asia was somebody else’s problem — certainly none of Washington’s business. The Life photo spread helped shift those opinions.

Entitled “Bloody Saturday” or just “Shanghai Baby”, the photo became a potent symbol of the plight of the Chinese people, not to mention a lighting rod for anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. If nothing else, the snapshot would emerge as one many waypoints on the road to war between Japan and the United States. Here are 11 facts about this historic photo:

H.S. Wong. (Image source: WikiCommons)

H.S. Wong. (Image source: WikiCommons)

• The picture was taken by H.S. Wong, a 37-year-old photojournalist in the employ of the powerful Hearst newspaper chain.

• Wong captured the now famous image shortly after 4 p.m. on Aug. 28, 1937 after watching Japanese bombers drop their deadly payloads onto a crowded Shanghai railway station. The terminal was packed with thousands of refugees, all of whom were hoping to flee the burning city by train. The press corps had been tipped off that warplanes were about to strike nearby. Several reporters, including Wong, gathered on a nearby rooftop to take in the grim spectacle.

• Immediately following the attack, newsmen rushed to the station to document the carnage. Wong was among them. “It was a horrible sight,” he later recalled. “Dead and injured lay strewn across the tracks and platform. Limbs lay all over the place. I stopped to reload my camera. I noticed that my shoes were soaked with blood.” [1]

• Wong spied a helpless infant sitting beside some of the smouldering wreckage. A few feet away lay the lifeless body of the child’s mother. The photographer stole a few frames and then took some footage of the heart-wrenching scene with a 35 mm movie camera he was carrying. Moments later, an adult male, presumably the child’s father, arrived on scene. Emergency responders tended to the youngster as best they could before the man and child disappeared into the crowd. Wong never learned the infant’s name or fate.

Shanghai burns, August 1937. More than 200,000 Chinese, mostly civilians, perished in the Japanese onslaught. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Shanghai burns, August 1937. More than 200,000 Chinese, mostly civilians, perished in the Japanese assault on the city. (Image source: WikiCommons)

• Wong developed his film the following day and showed what he’d captured to the editors of the China Press newspaper. They were blown away by the explosive visuals. He delivered his negatives to a U.S warship departing Shanghai for the Philippines. From there, the package was put aboard a flight heading stateside.

• Footage of the infant appeared in newsreels as early as mid-September. By the end of the month, it was being seen in movie houses across the country. As many as 25 million Americans witnessed the brief sequence. [2] The stills were picked up by the Hearst newspaper chain and ran coast to coast and internationally. By October, it’s estimated that 136 million people had seen Wong’s now iconic image.

• The photograph became an instant sensation. It aroused indignation in coffee shops, saloons and living rooms across the United States, not to mention the corridors of power. Once isolationist legislators were soon launching hawkish tirades against Japan. Nebraska senator and noted foreign policy dove George Norris described Tokyo’s militarist regime as “disgraceful,” “barbarous” and “cruel”. Relations between Tokyo and Washington were strained as the U.S. sought to retaliate against Japan for its aggression through diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions. Within four years, the two countries would be at war.

H.S. Wong claimed that the figure in this photo was the infant's father. Others saw it as evidence that the entire scene was staged.

H.S. Wong claimed that the figure in this photo was the infant’s father. Skeptics maintained this shot is evidence that the entire scene was staged. (Image source: WikiCommons)

• While many pointed to the image as evidence of the threat Japan posed to world peace, Tokyo declared the picture a hoax and placed a $50,000 price on Wong’s head.

• Despite the risks, Wong continued to cover the war in China, often putting himself in the way of the bullets to get his shots. After a number of close calls, he eventually fled to Hong Kong. He continued to work as a photojournalist until 1970. Wong died in Taipei in 1981. He was 81 years old.

• His famous image would go on to become one of the most influential photographs of all time. Not only did it serve as a grim foreshadow of the horrors that lay ahead in World War Two, Wong’s motherless war child personified all civilian victims of conflict in general. The photo has since appeared in numerous retrospectives of the 20th Century.

• Some have attempted to make the case that Wong manipulated the scene, reportedly going so far as to physically place the infant in the frame. Others have claimed that the photographer touched up the image in the darkroom afterwards, adding smoke for dramatic effect. However eyewitnesses have defended the shots as authentic.

(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on May 27, 2015)

SOURCES
http://www.famouspictures.org/bloody-saturday/
http://www.lomography.com/magazine/259072-influential-photographs-bloody-saturday-1937-by-h-s-wong
https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/tag/h-s-wong/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody_Saturday_(photograph)