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Army vet recalls scene of Nagasaki destruction 75 years ago today

Battered religious figures stand watch on a hill above a tattered valley. Nagasaki, Japan. September 24, 1945, 6 weeks after the city was destroyed by the world's second atomic bomb attack. (Cpl. Lynn P. Walker, Jr./Marine Corps)

Flying 8,000 feet above Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, Frank Newell balanced on his knees over an open bay of a B-24 bomber and looked upon a scene never witnessed before.

As he peered through a camera at the rear of the plane dubbed Tricky Nicky, the Pender, Nebraska, native saw entire portions of the Japanese city leveled.

Perhaps some new kind of fire bomb caused the destruction below, he and his crew mates thought.

Unbeknownst to them, Newell and the other nine men aboard the bomber were witnessing the aftermath of the second atomic bomb ever used in wartime.

“It was total devastation, smoke and some fires. There was nothing. It was so devastating. It was just wreckage. It looked strange,” Newell said.

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But Newell was a 20-year-old radio operator, not a scientist. He was told to take pictures of the city, and he followed orders. Focused on his job, he didn’t have time to think about what type of bomb could have caused that type of damage. He just knew it was different.

“I did see a lot and it was unusual,” he said. “Beyond that, it was different from other pictures I took. It was all just flat.”

It was 75 years ago on this date that the atomic bomb nicknamed “Fat Man” was dropped over Nagasaki, killing an estimated 75,000 people and hastening the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II six days later.

The story of the development of the atomic bomb, its use over Nagasaki and Hiroshima three days earlier and the extent of the death and damage it caused is well-known today.

For the crew of a bomber skirting the giant mushroom cloud, it might have seemed out of the ordinary, but in their minds, they were just completing another mission. Who’d ever heard of an atomic bomb?

“We didn’t think anything different. We thought it was just another fire-bombing. We had no knowledge of the atom bomb,” Newell, now 95, said in a phone interview from his home in Bellevue, Washington.

Newell couldn’t have dreamed of the possibility of an atom bomb, but he’d pondered plenty of other things while growing up in the Logan Valley in Thurston County. Hours of sitting under a willow tree next to a creek near his family’s farm were spent dreaming of becoming an actor or newspaper man. After graduating from Pender High School in 1942 and enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps the following year, he had new dreams.

“I had in my mind that I was going to be a pilot,” he said.

He made it to his final physical, but didn’t qualify for pilot training, he said, because his hand-eye coordination wasn’t good enough. Instead, the Army sent him to radio school in St. Louis. From there it was gunnery school in Yuma, Arizona, and then combat school, where he was assigned to a 10-man B-24 bomber crew for flight training.

In October 1944, his crew and seven others were sent to Langley Field, Virginia, for special training. There, they saw B-24s that had radar antennas in place of the bottom gun turret. Inside was an aerial camera mounted on a swivel to take ground photographs. A radio operator, Newell was trained to use the camera.

After two months of training, the 80 men were gathered together.

“We were told, ‘You’re going into the Pacific area. You’re going on a special mission. It’s very dangerous. Anyone who wants to opt out can do so now, no questions asked.’ Nobody did,” Newell said.

They were transferred in January 1945 to Salinas, California, where new B-24s awaited them. In early March, they flew their bombers from San Francisco to Honolulu, then island-hopped to Guam, where they joined the 11th Bomb Group, 98th Squadron, 7th Air Force.

They began flying bombing missions attacking Japanese military installments, the first a radio station and submarine base on Marcus Island. In addition to maintaining radio contact during the flights, Newell took aerial photos of the bombing strikes so Army commanders could determine each mission’s effectiveness.

In June, Newell and his crew were moved to Okinawa, and they now bombed cities in Japan. Newell continued taking pictures of the bombings and was instructed to also take reconnaissance photos so planners could identify potential landing sites for an American invasion.

On Aug. 9, 1945, the Tricky Nicky was assigned to a mission bombing the Japanese city of Kurume. As the napalm bombs exploded below, Newell took photos, and then the pilot changed course.

“As we left Kurume, we made course for Nagasaki,” Newell said.

As the airplane neared Nagasaki, the crew saw a strange cloud stretching 22,000 feet above the earth.

“I clearly remember the co-pilot, he was a man from Kansas, he was the first to see this huge, black cloud. He said, ‘My God, that’s bigger than any tornado in Kansas,'” Newell said.

About two hours earlier, a B-29 bomber named Bockscar had dropped the atomic bomb on the city. As the Tricky Nicky approached, Newell’s pilot told him to get back to his camera. Newell followed orders, opening the hatch, straddling it on his knees, gripping the camera handles and taking pictures of the destroyed city as the pilot flew around the cloud before returning to Okinawa.

After the bomber had landed and rolled to a stop, an officer greeted the crew.

“When we came in, our officer came out. I pulled the cassette of film out of the camera, handed it to him and that was it,” Newell said.

Two days later, after their next bombing mission was canceled, Newell and his mates first learned of the atomic bombs that had demolished the two Japanese cities. Though they had seen first-hand the destruction the new weapons had caused, the concept was hard to grasp.

“Nobody really understood it,” Newell said.

Days later, the war was over. Instead of flying bombing missions, Newell and his crew began transporting American and Allied POWs from Japan to a hospital in the Philippines.

By December, Newell was discharged in San Francisco. He visited his brother in Salem, Oregon, for a few days before returning to his parents’ farm in Thurston County for Christmas. On Jan. 2, 1946, Newell left for Salem, where he enrolled in Willamette University and received a degree in history and political science.

He retired in 2004 at age 79, after a career in newspaper publishing, broadcasting and entertainment.

At a reunion of the Tricky Nicky’s crew in 1985, the pilot pulled Newell aside and revealed a secret. During a briefing before they took off on the day of the Nagasaki bombing, he was given orders to detour over the city after they had completed their bombing mission to take pictures. His final order: tell no one, an order he kept for 40 years until telling Newell.

Newell is the last surviving member of the crew and has no relatives living in the Pender area. He remains in relatively good health, he said, except for hearing loss in his left ear, caused by hours of wearing his radio headset and hearing its continuous signal for more than 12 hours at a time. Newell said he collects a small veterans disability payment for the hearing loss and has a pending claim concerning the radiation he was exposed to while flying over Nagasaki.

Now an author who published his first novel, “The Lantern,” which is set in Nebraska, in 2018, Newell is working on his second book.

He has no copies of the photos he took on that historic day. He can still picture leaving his position near the front of the bomber, moving to the back of the plane and positioning himself over his camera.

What he did in the following minutes is history.

“I don’t think about it very often,” he said. “It’s not something I dwell on anymore. My life has taken me many different ways and places.”

What he experienced that day has come up in conversations over the years, but he rarely tells the story anymore, he said. To him and his crew, it was one more mission in an effort to win a war. They were doing what they were trained to do.

“I had no knowledge of what it was,” he said of the atomic bomb. “I was just doing my job like the rest of us.”

A job well done.

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©2020 Sioux City Journal, Iowa

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.