For a long time, Bill Jones kept his contributions to World War II history secret, hidden at the bottom of an ammo box full of love letters and in the barrels of souvenir rifles: the official military photographs of the aftermath of the United States’ atomic bombing of Japan.
A former aerial photographer and Army Air Corps gunner, Jones served as the official Army photographer for Hiroshima and Nagasaki after atomic bombs were dropped over the cities nearly 70 years ago. Before being drafted, he had volunteered for pilot training but was underweight after a bout with rheumatic fever. Instead of the cockpit, he ended up in photography and gunnery training. He was on his first furlough when the war ended but was eventually sent to Fukuoka, Japan, arriving at the end of 1945.
“By the time I got there, the people who had lived there had scavenged for wood and tar paper and whatever they could get their hands on,” says Jones, a member of American Legion Post 82 in Fort Wayne, Ind. “The thing that hit me most, when I was on the train (in Hiroshima): the rails had been warped by the heat of the bomb. This is a mile away, and those rays literally heated those rails for a millionth of a second, and so as we went around the city, these little, quite ancient cars just rocked from side to side even though we were going slow.”
It was Jones’ job to document the effect of the atomic blasts over the two cities – a force that President Harry Truman deemed “a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.”
As the most experienced aerial photographer, Jones captured the devastation on film, in January 1946. About a month after he took the photos, he was promoted from corporal to sergeant.
From the start, a different energy marked the project – a sense of importance and curiosity, at least among the officers.
“The colonel came taxiing up in his Stinson L-5,” Jones recalls. “It was a very nice airplane to take pictures from because there were slots in the wings, and you could lower the flaps slightly and fly even slower, which made it nice for aerial photography.
“Col. (Richard) Fulcher had the side of the plane down. Another guy had just brought his airplane in and said, ‘Where you going, Fulch?’ He said, ‘Nagasaki,’ and the captain said, ‘Darn, I want to go to Nagasaki. Can I go along?’”
A second plane was prepped, and both took off.
“I took the photographs in reverse order: Nagasaki first, Hiroshima second,” Jones said. “The starkness, the absence of anything, of everything – that’s what stands out the most.”
Jones hasn’t forgotten – he’ll never forget – what he saw through the lens. “When I saw the city itself, everything was bare, except Mitsubishi Steel was tangled steel ... There were two schools on a hilltop. Their faces were caved in, along with the roof on the east side. I remember those two schools. I remember the tangled steel that I saw.”
Jones’s K-20 camera sounded its refrain over the bleak landscape again and again: wind, cock, trip, wind, cock, trip – 50 pictures to each roll of film.
“On the other side was the city proper with a mountain that tapered down to the river,” he continues. “The rays of the bomb had come over the lower end of the mountain and touched the city and set it on fire.”
In Nagasaki, about 40,000 people were killed instantly, according to the BBC, and an estimated 50,000 total died from the blast. “Things that were flammable were just simply vaporized, along with people,” Jones says. In Hiroshima, an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed instantly, with about 135,000 total dead.
The industrial city was built “right up against the mountains” and had a series of rivers. “It almost looked like a hand with fingers,” he says.
“When I flew over Hiroshima, it looked pretty bare, just flattened. There were a few buildings that were not destroyed – not vaporized, I should say.” The ground was not charred, just bare. By the time Jones flew over, the Japanese had cleared much of the damage.
There was one building still standing, but all its windows were gone, he says. Upon closer inspection, it had actually “cracked to pieces but hadn’t fallen.” Another was “just crumbled steel.”
The plane flew on. Wind, cock, trip. Wind, cock, trip.
Though the target had been the Aioi Bridge, the hypocenter of the blast was Shima Hospital.
“In Hiroshima it was even more so blasted away, a lot of just plain empty spaces,” Jones says. “Now the damaged area, the area of almost total damage, (was a) 1-mile radius, and then two miles out was damaged enough that most of the buildings were not usable. Even three miles out there was still damage. It was a pretty powerful bomb.”
At the time he took the photographs, Jones didn’t think much about their significance. “It was just my job, and I was a 20-year-old,” he says.
When they returned to the base, though, there was a definite buzz about his pictures.
“I didn’t realize how really historical they were, but I did realize that they were important,” he says. “When I developed the film, the colonel was over there immediately. He said, ‘Jones, before you put a pen to those negatives ....’”
Jones usually dipped a pen in India ink to record information on the edges of the 4-by-5-inch negatives: the date, the approximate time, the negative number. But a colonel asked him to make prints for him before he added the data, which included a secret classification. Several officers and enlisted men working in the photo lab echoed the request. So Jones made pre-official prints, moving the negatives through trays of fluids, a developer, a shortstop bath, then hypo to remove any unexposed silver.
He developed the photographs as he would any others – except this time, he held one set of prints back for himself. Then he printed the official versions, which went “to the main building to be sent out to wherever they send ’em.”
Making the prints was easy. Keeping them, not so much.
“When I got ready to come home, I had a number of 8-by-10s I had printed, but I was afraid to send them home for fear they’d be confiscated,” Jones says. “So I sent home two Japanese rifles, and for each 8-by-10, I put paper around it and then rolled it around the barrels of the guns, and they were in wooden boxes nailed shut. It would have been just a little too much to pry ’em open, you know.”
Jones decided to put the 4-by-5 negatives in the bottom of a .50-caliber steel ammunition box.
“To camouflage them, I saved all my girlfriend’s letters, and I stacked all of those letters in there and they filled that box right to the top. I snapped that lid shut and put a wire through it to keep it from opening.”
Jones kept them in a 4-inch-thick album at home. He shared the photos only with close family until 1990, when he confirmed they had been declassified. It was a relief.
Soon, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, heard about the pictures and wanted them.
After keeping them to himself for so many years, “I didn’t want to give up the album,” he says.
In the end, a $42,000 tax write-off persuaded him to part with them. He digitized every last photo before donating them to the Smithsonian, keeping a handful and putting the rest on DVD.
Over the next two decades, Jones gave 284 presentations on the atomic bombings, from military personnel to church groups. Those days are behind him now, but he still volunteers as a curator at the Hoosier Air Museum in Auburn, near Fort Wayne. And he appreciates the small part he played in preserving a historic and controversial moment in U.S. and world history.
“This was the first and only time – twice – that they used atomic bombs,” Jones says. “And I was the guy who preserved the pictures. It was just an ordinary plane flight for me, but I was astounded at what I saw.”
Lindsey Alexander is a freelance writer in Lafayette, Ind.