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Hiroshima bomb photographer John McGlohon dies at 96

Atomic cloud over Hiroshima (509th Operations Group/WikiCommons)

John McGlohon, retired Asheboro fire chief and city council member best known for taking a photo of the Hiroshima bomb, died Sunday, Feb. 2, at Randolph Hospice House. He was 96 years old.

Mayor David Smith said Asheboro “lost another true treasure of our community. He was a fine, kind, unassuming person. He was responsible for bringing our fire service into the modern era.”

Although McGlohon spent 30 years with the Asheboro Fire Department, 24 as chief, he was probably more known for taking photos of the atomic bomb blast in Japan on Aug. 6, 1945. The photographer for a B-29 crew and a US Army Air Force sergeant, he took the photos that day after his plane was mistakenly flying over the city. Those photos, which he never saw until later, became iconic historical images.

A view into history

In a 2015 interview with The Courier-Tribune, McGlohon recalled that experience.

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Following a brilliant flash of light, which he says temporarily blinded the pilot and gunners, he reached over and turned on the cameras in his compartment aft of the gunnery room.

“We realized it was something different than we saw every day,” he said.

The image he captured was different from other photographs of the historic event, too, those that show profiles of the iconic mushroom cloud from a distance.

That’s because the planes assigned to record the event for history had been ordered to stay at least 50 miles away from the target area. McGlohon’s crew had not received such orders.

They were there by accident, on an unrelated mission whose flight path just happened to take them over Hiroshima.

So, after that flash of light on Aug. 6, 1945, what John McGlohon saw as he peered down through a viewfinder was the top of a massive cloud.

His plane continued on its course, speeding away from the rising cloud. He picked up a hand-held camera and moved to a blister, or transparent bubble, in the fuselage and snapped more pictures.

The cloud rose higher than the altitude of the plane.

McGlohon said his pictures were taken within seconds of the time the crew of another B-29, the Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb ever deployed.

Three days later, on Aug. 9, the U.S. dropped a second A-bomb, this one on Nagasaki.

Six days after that, the Japanese emperor announced his nation’s surrender to the Allies.

The Japanese signed the surrender on Sept. 2, ending World War II.

On Oct. 5, 1945, McGlohon was discharged from the service without ever seeing a print of the photos he’d shot over Hiroshima — a print he would not see until half a century later at a reunion.

“I left Guam so fast I didn’t even get to tell the fellows goodbye,” he said.

Impact at home

While the mushroom cloud photos are McGlohon’s claim to fame, he took hundreds of other pictures during his time as a flight crew member during World War II, according to Mayor Smith.

“He was in multiple countries taking photos,” Smith said, including South America, Alaska, China, Russia and Japan. “He was one of the most fascinating people,” particularly “the history of his involvement in World War II and his inadvertent witness of the atom bomb.”

Smith said he has known McGlohon all his life, from First United Methodist Church to Boys Scouts to the Asheboro City Council. The fire chief was a member of the church choir, Smith said, and if a fire call came in he would jump up and leave. Soon after, there would be the wail of sirens.

McGlohon became something of a mentor to Smith after the current mayor was elected to the city council. Calling McGlohon “an inspiration,” Smith said he was “a very astute councilman. He gave me a lot of help when I was elected.

“We had many conversations about his days in the service,” said Smith. “He had lots of the pictures he took” when he was co-owner of John David Photography on Sunset Avenue. Many of the Asheboro street scenes are posted in the Asheboro Municipal Building.

McGlohon left photography to go to work at the fire department in 1955. When Chief Clarence Rush died in 1961, McGlohon was selected to take his place.

Chuck Way was the last firefighter McGlohon hired, joining the department on Jan. 15, 1985. “I thought he was a great man. He gave me an opportunity that became a career of 33 years.”

Still a student at Asheboro High School, Way said when he turned 18 he went to McGlohon’s office and filled out a job application.

“You could always talk to him about problems,” said Way. “He wouldn’t tell you what to do but would give suggestions and help you along. He meant so much to everybody in different ways. He gave me my start. He was a mentor for showing you (how to do) service to the community. He never tried to tell you what to do but gave guidelines and directions.”

Way said McGlohon’s love of the fire department was evident since he continued to come by the fire station to “see how everyone was and to stay in touch. He always had an encouraging word for firefighters.

“They would invite him for lunch on Sundays and he would always come if he was feeling well,” said Way. “He would stay to talk and answer questions.”

McGlohon, Way said, helped start the fire safety education plan with the approval of Rush. According to Way, the beginning was home safety pointers with a home economics class at Asheboro High School.

“I’d heard his story (about witnessing the atomic blast) because I grew up in Asheboro,” said Way. “In high school when we studied World War II, he came and talked to our class and told his story.

“I heard it again about three years ago when he gave a talk at the library. My two oldest children were there and heard him tell his story.”

‘That’s the picture I took’

In the 2015 interview, McGlohon said he did not see a print of his photo for 50 years.

The first time he saw one was at a reunion of fellow airmen in Tampa, Fla. It was posted among other pictures in a display set up by a lab chief who had, as McGlohon terms it, “absconded” with some photos after the war.

When he saw the photograph of smoke obscuring the city of Hiroshima far, far below, he knew immediately that he had taken it. He had carried the image in his mind’s eye for half a century.

“That’s the picture I took,” he told his wife, Jane, who had traveled with him to the reunion (along with their younger son, Steve).

After the war, some people did not believe McGlohon when he told the story. He had nothing to show them.

In more recent years even, doubters scoffed at what they called a “fairy tale.”

But a Chatham County man named Ken Samuelson spent two years checking out the story, combing through military archives, talking to veterans and documenting that McGlohon’s story was fact, not fiction.

One thing that led to the confusion is that McGlohon and his fellow crew members completed their assigned mission before returning to Guam late that day. Apparently, his film was commingled with film taken by crews that were supposed to be taking pictures of the bomb, and it was subsequently mislabeled. The photo ID attributes the image to another airplane, one that was flying miles from Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped.

McGlohon recalled that when he arrived with his film there was a lot of excitement at the lab. He was told to unload his film in a corner of the room. He has put his memories of that day on paper. They read, in part:

“While I was in the lab I saw film that was being captioned as it was run across a viewing table and on one negative I saw a small silhouette of the cloud we had seen. I asked Sgt. Johnnie Dornblazer, who was working with the film, what the object was and he told me ‘that is an atomic bomb.’ When I told him that we had taken portraits of that cloud someone behind me said ‘if you did you will be dead by morning.’ That being my first knowledge of what we had photographed.”

One of McGlohon’s fellow airmen died thinking the crew had been “set up,” that they were “guinea pigs” on the day the bomb was dropped.

McGlohon said he never lost any sleep over such a notion.

Visitation for McGlohon will be Friday, Feb. 7, from 6-8 p.m. at Pugh Funeral Home, 437 Sunset Ave., Asheboro. Funeral services will be held on Saturday, Feb. 8, at 11 a.m. at First United Methodist Church, 224 N. Fayetteville St., Asheboro, with the Rev. Lynda Ferguson, Pastor Gary Mason and Malcolm Britt officiating. Burial will follow in Oaklawn Cemetery.

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© 2020 The Courier-Tribune