PITTSBORO — The dropping of the first atomic bomb was a deliberately exclusive mission assigned to just three U.S. planes: the Enola Gay, which carried the 9,700-pound ordnance the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, and two other B-29s that followed at a safe distance to record the effects of the blast.
Other Allied aircraft were barred from the area of southern Japan, mostly because scientists who built the bomb didn't know exactly what it would do.
But there was one more B-29 in the sky over Hiroshima at the moment "Little Boy" was let loose, and its crew witnessed the event that helped end World War II.
It has been left out of historical accounts - and treated by some as the spurious claim of an old man - because this plane wasn't supposed to be there.
Asheboro flyboy John McGlohon and his 10 Army Air Force crewmen didn't get the order to stay away from Hiroshima. When the bomb blew up, their aircraft was approaching the city on a routine photography reconnaissance mission, with McGlohon running the cameras. The photos he took minutes after the explosion were the only ones made looking straight down on Hiroshima as the mushroom cloud was enveloping it.
For decades, McGlohon had nothing more to substantiate his story of having seen and photographed that pivotal moment than his detailed memories. The Enola Gay flying in the opposite direction, trying to get clear of the blast. The blinding burst of light at detonation, brighter than a million-million flash bulbs. The massive cloud of ash and smoke.
After 65 years, McGlohon and his two surviving crewmen finally have proof.
Ken Samuelson has spent the past two years researching and vindicating McGlohon's claim.
"He was there. The plane was there. There is no question," says Samuelson, who pursued confirmation in archives and memories all over the country from his home in Chatham County's Fearrington Village. "This is a story that is not really known, that has never been publicized."
Joining to escape
McGlohon entered the war like millions of others, young adventurers who saw military service as a way out of wherever they were.
On his 18th birthday, he went to Winston-Salem to talk to a recruiter.
"He said, 'Where do you want to go?'" McGlohon recalls. "I said, 'Just as far as you can send me.'"
In June 1941, he was sent to Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Ala., where he asked to join the newly formed 3rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, which gathered aerial photographs for use in making detailed military maps. Assigned to clerical work, he was fascinated by darkroom processes and soon learned how to run and print film. While the squadron was on assignment in Brazil in 1942, one of the photographers got sick and was sent home, and McGlohon was ordered to replace him.
For the rest of the war, he was at the shutter of one kind of camera or another, mostly large-format outfits each weighing as much as a small child. His job was to capture detailed images of whatever portion of the world his cameras could see through a 12-by-12-inch window in the belly of a plane.
He helped map what would become the Alaska Highway and "the Hump" in the Himalayan Mountains. The squadron was in Salina, Kansas, at Smoky Hill Air Force Base learning to fly the new B-29 for missions in Europe when McGlohon's brother, a bombardier, was killed in England.
His squadron spent months flying missions out of Chentu, China, covering the Korean Peninsula and parts of Japan.
In the spring of 1945, his group rejoined the 3rd Photo squadron at Harmon Field on the island of Guam. The 3rd was attached then to the 20th Air Force, but in mid-July it was transferred to the 8th Air Force, which was bringing its might to help bombard Japan. The 3rd's assignment was usually to fly before or after a bombing mission, gathering intelligence from 25,000 to 30,000 feet above the ground. The photos were used to guide the bombers, or to document the damage they inflicted.
"We saw cities burningevery day," McGlohon says.
Flying above Hiroshima
McGlohon's plane, piloted by Jack Economos, left in the early hours of Aug. 6 for a long flying day, to photograph potential targets near Hiroshima, Kure and farther north.
As they neared Hiroshima around 8:15 a.m., a gunner reported over the intercom seeing a B-29 flying in the opposite direction as if headed for an emergency landing at Iwo Jima.
Often, McGlohon says, when bombers had engine trouble, they would abort their missions, drop their bomb loads and try to reach a friendly landing site.
Within seconds, McGlohon said, "There was a brilliant flash below our plane. The light was as if someone had fired a big flashbulb directly in your eyes.
"We assumed the bomber had salvoed his bomb load and managed to get a good hit on an ammunition dump or an oil tank, so the day wouldn't be a total loss," McGlohon said. He turned on his cameras to shoot the damage and the cloud that was rising from below so that later, "The crew could get credit for the good job they had done."
Handing the film over
Without breaking radio silence, McGlohon says, his crew completed its mission, returning to Guam late in the afternoon.
When he went to deliver his usual truckload of film to the lab, McGlohon says, he was met by two Marine guards at the door. Inside, technicians were already working on film shot by the photo team that was assigned to follow the Enola Gay.
McGlohon eventually was allowed to take his film into the lab, where he saw negatives being processed that included distant images of the cloud he had photographed from directly overhead.
"What is that?" he asked. A sergeant answered, "An atomic bomb."
"Well if it is," McGlohon told him, "we took portraits of it this morning."
At first, he said, no one believed it. He dug out his film.
McGlohon never saw the film again after he handed it over for processing.
On Aug. 9, the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki, and Japan offered to surrender.
A fire chief, councilman
After the war ended, McGlohon left Guam so fast he hardly said goodbye. Back home in Asheboro for 40 years, where he became fire chief and served on the city council, he heard nothing from his old friends in the photo squadron. Finally they found him, and he began to attend reunions.
It was at one of those, in 1995, when McGlohon saw for the first time a print of the photo he had taken the morning the atomic bomb was dropped. The picture was mounted on a display board.
"That's what I saw out the bottom of my airplane that day," McGlohon told his wife.
Indeed, the squadron's lab chief, Elmer Dixson, had brought home copies of many key photos, often still marked, "SECRET."
This one clearly shows the docks on the south side of Hiroshima in the left half of the frame. The right half is a mass of smoke that obliterates the rest of the city.
The print bears a date from the processing lab of Aug. 6, 1945.
Over the years, McGlohon told the story to civic groups, friends, anyone interested in military history. Only after it was relayed in an Internet forum did anyone suggest outright that McGlohon was some kind of poseur.
Ken Samuelson believed him. He first met McGlohon at a veterans group meeting in 1998, and had him speak to a similar group at Fearrington Village in 2008. It irritated Samuelson that somebody would dismiss the eyewitness account of a man who had given more than four years to military service.
A hunt for proof
Now on a quest, Samuelson started by consulting a general at the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, who was intrigued enough to suggest other sources. Those led him to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which took him to Maxwell Air Force Base, home of the Air Force Historical Research Agency, and to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Samuelson has read stacks of books, spun through rolls of microfilm, spent hours interviewing World War II veterans, talking with museum curators and historians and studying flight logs of the 3rd Photo Squadron and other military minutia.
Here's what Samuelson found:
On Aug. 6, 1945, McGlohon's photo reconnaissance unit was working out of Guam under the 8th Air Force, having been transferred from the 20th Air Force just three weeks before. The Enola Gay, stationed on nearby island of Tinian, was part of the 20th.
Before the bombing, an order was issued to the 20th Air Force barring its planes from flying within 50 miles of Hiroshima the morning of Aug. 6. McGlohon's unit, now under the 8th Air Force, was not on the distribution list. Samuelson has a copy of the order.
He also has a copy of the flight's mission report, indicating the route the plane traveled that day and noting the rising cloud the crew had seen.
At the moment the bomb exploded, McGlohon and his crew were approaching Hiroshima at about 27,000 feet and flying at at least 275 mph. They would have passed over the city before the mushroom cloud had time to reach their altitude, Samuelson says. McGlohon says his plane did not fly through the cloud.
Film gets mixed up
The film McGlohon delivered to the lab was commingled with film from the Enola Gay's reconnaissance plane and other photo planes that were sent toward Hiroshima later. Because McGlohon's plane wasn't supposed to be in the area, lab techs would not have known he took the picture. It is credited to a 20th Air Force plane that was actually miles away at the time.
If officials knew the photo was taken by a plane that was in the area by mistake, Samuelson believes they might have intentionally covered up the oversight to avoid having to explain it.
Clarence Becker, who was operations officer for the 3rd Photo Squadron, corroborates McGlohon's report.
"I sent them out that day," says the 91-year-old retired officer, now living in Reno, Nev. "We didn't know there was going to be an atomic bomb. I didn't even know what an atomic bomb was until that day."
Becker says he delivered a set of prints from the lab, including the one that McGlohon shot, to the general's quarters around midnight the night of the 6th.
A decade or so ago, Elmer Dixson gave his collection of wartime photos, including the one McGlohon says he shot, to the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum in Tyler, Texas.
Now it's on display
Since Samuelson tracked down documentation for the McGlohon photo, it's been put on display in the Tyler museum, while thousands of others wait to be cataloged.
"Now that we know what it is," says Mike Burke, museum curator, "the only one we know of that's looking straight down at the cloud, it's more interesting. It's just something unique."
Whether McGlohon shot the photo, whether his crew was the only one to see the mushroom cloud from that vantage point, "doesn't change anything," he says. The story of the bomb was the awful damage it did, the deaths it caused and the deaths it may have prevented by hastening the war's end.
McGlohon defended his country. Thanks to Samuelson, he no longer has to defend his story.
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