The Mystery of Hiroshima and the Fourth B-29

Posted on 12 August 2010

The history surrounding the conclusion of World War II centers on the atomic bomb, a weapon that brought the war to a screeching halt.  In the 65 years succeeding the end of the war, all records of that fateful day — August 6, 1945 — have stated that three, repeat, three B-29’s set out to deliver the first atomic bomb to the islands of Japan.

Bearing a single nuclear bomb code-named Little Boy, a B-29 bomber took off from the island of Tinian in the Pacific. Christened the Enola Gay in honor of Commander Colonel Paul Tibbets’ mother, the Enola Gay was accompanied by two more B-29s.   The Great Artiste conveyed instrumentation and was commanded by Major Charles W. Sweeney, and The Necessary Evil, which carried photography equipment, was commanded by Captain George Marquardt. Leaving Tinian separately, the three planes rendezvoused over Iwo Jima; from there, they began their irrevocable six-hour flight to Japan.

As a safety precaution, the bomb was armed en route to Japan and the safety devices removed thirty minutes before reaching primary target, Hiroshima.  Kokura and Nagasaki were the secondary targets.  When the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, those aboard the B-29s described the event as a giant fireball and a mushroom cloud that completely destroyed the city.

Now, 65 years after Hiroshima was leveled, comes a strange tale that surfaced in the Raleigh News & Observer.  It concerns a North Carolina World War II veteran who photographed the A-Bomb as it exploded over that Japanese city.

Like all stories, this one has a beginning and an end, so let’s start in the beginning.

In June of 1941, John McGlohon, who was then 18 years old, joined U.S. military.  Assigned a desk job, he was attached to the 3rd Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was trained in photography.  John enhanced skills during an assignment in Brazil, in 1942, when he was ordered to replace one of the aerial photographers who had taken ill.

As the war progressed, John’s squadron was sent to Smoky Hills Air Force Base at Salina, Kansas, to learn to fly the new B-29 bomber.  His tour of duty found him photographing missions in China, the Korean peninsula, and Japan.

In the spring of 1945, John’s squadron was assigned to the 20th Air Force Command at Harmon Airbase on Guam.  Later, they would be assigned to the 8th Air Force Command.  Flying missions over Japan, the squadron recorded possible targets and damage resulting from bombing runs.

When the order was given to bomb Hiroshima, the 20th Air Force Command issued an order forbidding all aircraft from flying within 50 miles of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.  Somehow, this order never filtered down to John’s group.  Therefore, a B-29 piloted by Jack Economos left Guam in the early morning hours on the day in question to reconnoiter at Hiroshima and points north.

As the plane approached Hiroshima, one of the gun crew announced over the intercom that he saw another B-29 headed in the opposite direction.  At that point, John said that a brilliant flash of light appeared under the plane like a giant flash bulb going off; this was followed by a large cloud rising into the air. John immediately switched on his cameras to record the devastation.  Unaware of the order not to fly within 50 miles of Hiroshima, John assumed that the B-29 he saw leaving the area had dropped its load not on a heavily populated city, but on an ammunition dump.

Returning to Guam late in the day, John delivered his photographs to be developed.  While in the developing room, he saw shots taken by the photographic crew that had accompanied the Enola Gay.  “What’s that?” he asked.  The reply was, “It’s an atomic bomb.”  “Well,” John retorted, “if it is, we took pictures of it this morning!”  No one believed him until they saw his photographic evidence.  For decades, that  was the last time that John ever saw those photos.

With the second attack on Nagasaki, Japan surrendered, thus bringing the World War II to an end after four long, bloody years.  John returned home to Asheboro, North Carolina.  He shared his story with his wife, family, and friends and then went on with his life to become a city councilman and the town’s fire chief.

During a reunion of his war buddies in 1995, John’s old photographic lab chief, Elmer Dixon, brought a file marked Secret that contained the photographs of Hiroshima.  While the docks on the south side of the city were visible in the photos, the  mushroom cloud obscured everything else.

“That’s just the way I saw it!” John McGlohon excitedly told his wife.  Sure enough, the photos were stamped with the date that went down in history: August 6, 1945.

Over the years, John’s story found it’s way into an Internet forum discussion.  Some claimed that it was fabricated as a ploy to achieve greatness.  At a subsequent reunion, in 1998, John McGlohon met up with Ken Samuelson.  Ken believed John’s story and set out to verify it.

His hunt for corroborating evidence led him to Air Force museums, conversations with curators and veterans, and examinations of flight logs of the 3rd Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron. The logs carried the path of John’s flight that day as well as a flight mission report.  Ken Samuelson then contacted 91-year-old Clarence Becker, who had served as Operations Officer for the 3rd Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron.  Becker confirmed, “I sent them [the squadron] out that day.”

Samuelson also tracked down the photos that Elmer Dixon had had in his possession, which he had subsequently donated to the Historic Aviation Museum in Tyler, Texas.  When informed of the McGlohon photographs, the museum’s curator, Mike Burke, stated, “It’s the only photo looking down on the cloud, and the story makes it more interesting and unique.”

The evidence uncovered by Samuelson supports John McGlohon’s story.  He and his crew did indeed comprise the fourth B-29 contingent that flew over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.  Why did it take so long for this story to surface? Will historians of World War II correct the number of B-29s over Hiroshima that day?  Or will this be written off as just another war story?

If this story exists, surely there must be other tales stockpiled in the minds of veterans who witnessed or participated in events that occurred while serving their country.   If these stories remain untold, they will be carried to the grave to be buried forever.

Let’s rectify this, please.  The Veterans Corner of Write On New Jersey extends an invitation to veterans to share your stories here.  If not here, please pass your stories on to your families and friends, before they are lost for all time. 

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13 Responses to “The Mystery of Hiroshima and the Fourth B-29”

  1. Colby says:

    Like the leaks of government reports on Afghanistan, yet another secret is revealed.

  2. Sammy K. says:

    Thanks, Tommy, for another interesting read. I had no idea about this!

  3. Tom says:

    Hi Sammy: having problems with my computer, I have to see computer doctor to resolve my problems thanks for the comments and God Bless.

  4. Fred says:

    My father was a Seabee on Guam August 6, 1945. He brought back a set of photos from Guam of the mushroom Cloud over Hiroshima and the surrender aboard the USS Missouri.He told me a friend of his was the photographer aboard the accompanying B-29 and gave him this set of the photos right after they were developed. He passed away in 2008, but I still have all the photos in the same album he brought them home in.

  5. Author says:

    Thank you for an interesting comment, Fred. The reason I wrote this article was to bring to light another untold story that happened during World War-2. America needs to be told these stories before they get lost in the passages of time

  6. car coverer says:

    Hi folks, – discovered your current blog inadvertently whilst looking around the web this morning, and pleased that I did!

  7. artfrankmiami says:

    Technically, the story of 3 B-29s is still true. Three B-29s were on the actual bombing mission. The fourth just happened to be there on a different mission just as the bomb exploded. I am glad that this has come to light though. I feel there are thousands of unforgotten stories of any of the wars and anything that comes out adds that one little bit more of detail that wasn’t there before. My Uncle rebuilt bridges–which I never knew about until in 2008 I saw some tiny photos of him next to a sign about rebuilding a bridge in record time.

  8. Amy says:

    My great uncle (maternal grandmothers brother) was Jack Economos, the pilot. He never talked about the war at all, and most of the family didn’t even know that this happened until after he died in 2000 from a brain tumor. All I knew was that he flew planes! I don’t recall now how I came to learn of it, but iirc they were originally meant to fly recon but none of the crew was aware of the orders. At the last minute, their commanding officer from the island got the abort orders, but didn’t have the heart to not let them go. He understood the historical significance. Interestingly, his tumor was linked back to this. How? I’m not sure. All of this was told me to 2nd or 3rd hand.

    Uncle Jack was such a sweet, quiet man. It’s nice to find this story from another’s view!

  9. Author says:

    I have just learned the names of the crew that photograph the atomic bomb as it detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Although this story gives largely with the photographer John McGlohon. I feel the entire crew of that unscheduled flight that changed the course of history, should be honored. Here is the order of battle for that flight.

    Source: Headquarters, Flight “C”, 1st Photo Recon SQ (VH), APO 210 Histories, February, Exhibit 2.
    Gremmler, Paul E. Capt Pilot 0-404756
    Economos, Jack W. 2nd Lt. Co-Pilot 0777629
    Riddle, Paul E. 1st Lt. Navigator 0-734603
    Fyffe, Pat C. 1st Lt. Navigator 0-667149
    Herman, Robert W. 2nd Lt. Flight Engineer 0-572007
    Elkins, Gerald A. S/Sgt Radio 32347220
    Laurie, Walter L. Cpl Gunner 11051996
    Beiler, William H. Cpl Gunner 3251865
    Caswell, Peter J. Cpl CFC 36566657
    Durilla, Michael Cpl Gunner 13094167
    McGlohon, John A. T/Sgt Photo 14049555
    Schreck, John P. S/Sgt Crew Chief 32409940
    After moving to Guam, Capt. Gremmler returned to US and Lt. Aubry Grice joined crew as Co-Pilot and Jack Economos took over as Pilot.

  10. Harold Burglin says:

    Hello! I just wanted to thank you for this piece of missing history.

  11. bella says:

    Hello. splendid job. I did not anticipate this. This is a great story. Thanks!

  12. Lenny says:

    I read your story of the “other” B-29 over Hiroshima on the day of the atomic bombing. I’ve heard the story before from the gentleman who was the co-pilot of that flight, known to me as “Bud” Grice. His given name was Aubry. Bud and I worked together at E-Systems in Garland, Texas. He was a Contracts Manager, nearing retirement (about 1989-1991 timeframe). I was relatively new to the company, having joined them from Martin Marietta Denver Aerospace in the summer of 1989.

    Bud invited me to lunch one day at the company cafeteria at our offices in Garland, Texas and shared the story of their witness of the bombing pretty much as you told the story from John McGlohon’s perspective. Bud’s son also worked at the company and I confirmed his telling with him. He also confirmed that they thought the bomb must have hit an ammo dump, or fuel dump, or some combination thereof as the blast was bigger than anything they’d ever seen. He said it was just an “accident of timing” that they didn’t fly through the cloud as they had no reason to know that anything unusual was happening that day in Hiroshima.

    I’d always been struck with the fact they accidently witnessed one of the pivotal events in human history. It was an incredible story to hear from a man who witnessed the event, albeit unintentionally.

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