Rare photos surface of Enola Gay, Bockscar
For many in America, this event can seem like a distant moment as it happened over seven decades ago on the other side of the globe, but for the Johns family the event is connected to their family history.
Leora Johns lives on a farm outside New Ulm with her daughter Connie Neal. Johns’ husband Erwin was stationed in the Pacific in 1945 and encountered the two planes that dropped the bombs, the Enola Gay and Bockscar, days before they carried out the mission. Not only did Erwin Johns see both planes but he also took photos of them.
Before the war photography was Erwins’ hobby and he continued taking photos throughout his time in the service.
On June 17, 1943, Erwin joined the Navy Construction Battalion also known as the C.B.s or Seabees. The Seabees job was to assist in the construction of naval bases in the Pacific. This included the construction of airstrips on islands. These airstrips were used to launch bombing raids on Japan. He eventually found himself stationed on the small island of Tinian.
Leora said other men in the navy brought their cameras but many were unable to develop their photos until after returning home. Erwin was able to develop his photos early through an inventive plan.
With the help of a friend Erwin constructed a dark room in the island’s paint shop. There, the two were able to develop photos of nearly every plane that landed on Tinian. Erwin was specifically photographing the nose art on a plane’s fuselage. Erwin and his friend sold prints of the photos they made to other men stationed there. This is how Erwin found himself in a position to photograph two of the most famous planes in history.
In addition to photos Leora has a tape recording of her husband explaining his time in the service. The video was recorded in August 1989, a few months before Erwin’s death.
In the video Erwin said he and the other men stationed on Tinian were aware the Enola Gay and Bockscar were not being loaded with the typical ordinance. The bombs arrived on the island by plane and were kept under extremely heavy guard.
The final assembly of the bombs took place on Tinian. Johns said he and the men stationed on the island needed to build a separate building for the assembly of the bombs. He remembered that every part of that building needed to be grounded against lightning strikes.
“We knew it was a bigger bomb, but we had no idea how big it was,” Johns said.
The power of the two atomic bombs was enough to annihilate both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The total number of Japanese killed in the blasts may never be known, but conservative estimates place the death toll at a minimum of 100,000.
Johns said the dropping of the bombs brought a quick end to the war, which made the Seabees happy because they got to go home.
Johns was officially discharged from service on March 2, 1946, after nearly three years in the Navy.
With the money Johns made from selling plane photos, he was able to buy a new Chevrolet automobile. The vehicle came in handy as his first night back in New Ulm he took Leora Schulz, his future wife, out on their first date. Leora said he took her to the New Ulm Ballroom.
Leora said her husband did not talk about his experience in the war often, unless a friend from the service visited. During these special visits, Erwin would bring out his photo albums and take a trip down memory lane.
Leora and Connie have several photo albums full of original photos taken by Erwin during his time on Tinian. A few years ago Leora had the original photos taken by her husband appraised at the Antique Road Show in Bismark, North Dakota.
Much of this plane art has been lost over the years. For this reason alone, the photos taken by Erwin are valuable to historians, but it is the pictures of the Enola Gay and Bockscar that are most impressive.
“They told us to never sell these,” Leora said. “They said they belong in a museum.”
Photos courtesy of Leora Johns