Rare photos surface of Enola Gay, Bockscar

Seaman Second Class Erwin Johns was born in Milford Township in 1925. During WWII he served in the Navy and was stationed on the small island of Tinian. As a hobby he photographed many of the planes landing on the airstrip he helped to construct. Toward the end of the war he photographed the Enola Gay and Bockscar. After the war Johns returned to New Ulm and eventually married Leora Schulz. The couple lived on a farm outside New Ulm until Johns’ death in 1989. Leora said this photo of her husband with the monkey is one her favorites.

NEW ULM — Seventy-two years ago this month, the Second World War came to an end after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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.

The Enola Gay was the B-29 bomber that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. This was the first incident of a nuclear device being used in warfare.

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.

Erwin Johns was stationed on the island of Tinian in the days leading up to the dropping of the atomic bombs. Johns took hundreds of photos during his time in the Pacific and managed to photograph the Enola Gay before its famous mission.

“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.

Bockscar (or Bock’s car) is the plane that dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan. The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. This was the last nuclear weapon ever used in warfare.

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

Bockscar was one of many planes to land on the island of Tinian. Brown County native Erwin Johns was stationed on the island and photographed the plane as well as hundreds of others.


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