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From cities to wastelands: A photographer views the war

By BOB CAYLOR of The News-Sentinel

When the first bomb - the bomb that would ever after be "the Bomb" - fell, Bill Jones was in Lincoln, Neb., transferring from B-24s to the new top-of-the-line bomber, a B-29. He hadn't shipped overseas yet, but this Army Air Corps photographer figured he was bound for duty in the inevitable invasion of Japan.

The atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima, along with the second dropped three days later at Nagasaki, meant that invasion would never happen. But even in the military, most people knew next to nothing about the destructive force of the A-bomb. All they knew was that a single, powerful bomb had destroyed each city.

It wasn't until he arrived in Japan in December 1945 that he got his first inkling of how truly strange and terrible its destructive power was. He and a trainload of other servicemen in the Army of occupation were traveling through Japan on a train that stopped in Hiroshima. As he wrote decades later, reflecting on his look at the devastated cities, "On the opposite side of our train was the rusting hulk of a steam locomotive buried cab down with the front end, almost half of its length, sticking out of the ground almost perpendicular," he said. Why didn't the bomb blast just blow the train on its side? And where's the crater such an enormous explosion should have left?

Not until the 1960s, as he remembers it, would he learn the answers.

Conventional bombs - the 500- and 1,000-pounders that had rained on Germany and Japan for years - generally detonated when they hit the ground. But instead of a few hundred pounds of TNT, this bomb exploded with a blast like 26 million pounds of TNT. To get the most bang from the bomb, it was detonated at an altitude of 1,800 feet above the city. That left no crater, but leveled almost every building in an area 2 miles across.

The tremendous concussion of the first atomic bomb pressed down on the top of that locomotive he'd seen and drove it nose-first into the earth.

As it turned out, Jones was going to get a much better look at the devastation caused by the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In January, Jones was ordered to shoot aerial photos of the bombed cities. He was stunned by the scope of the destruction. Circling the cities for dozens of different views, he saw nearly complete obliteration. Nagasaki was spared scores of thousands of deaths because of mountains that shielded part of the city from the concussion, heat and radiation. No natural barriers blunted the bomb's impact on Hiroshima. The city was practically shaved clean of buildings. The only ones that still stood were a few that were built to withstand earthquakes, and even those were so seriously damaged that they couldn't be used. Beyond those, only ragged foundations remained.

"It was kind of stupefying," he said. "We'd always thought of a bombing raid as using 500-pound bombs to knock out a single factory or a city block."

He kept copies of many of the photos he shot for the government above the bombed cities, but he didn't display or discuss them until recent years. Now he shows them to high school classes when he shares his war experiences. And he's provided several to Rachel Fermi, the granddaughter of nuclear-research pioneer Enrico Fermi, to use in her book, "Picturing the Bomb," a photographic history of the Manhattan Project.

After his tour of duty, he came back home to Columbia City and started a career as a photographer that lasted until he retired at the age of 67. In the 1960s, as more information about the bombings and the creation of the first atomic weapons was declassified, he developed a strong interest in the history and science of their use. Since then, he's written accounts of his experiences in Japan and of the history of the bomb.

And he's had decades to consider the question that has bedeviled the American conscience for 50 years: Were these bombings the right thing to do?

From all he says, Jones was a gentle-hearted warrior. He has a photo album of portraits of ordinary Japanese and stories about each one. He remembers being disturbed by the bitterness some of his fellow servicemen displayed toward the Japanese, civilians and veterans alike. Nevertheless, he thinks the bombing was the right thing to do. It saved lives.

"We knew our casualties would be over a million," he said. Just as important, the Japanese would have lost even more soldiers and civilians than we. Their casualties in an actual invasion would have been enormous, let alone the hundreds of thousands or more who would have died in months of bombing raids leading up to an invasion.

"Had Gen. (Curtis) LeMay had his way, he would have disemboweled every major city in Japan over the next few months," he said. Already, tens of thousands had died in firestorms in major cities across the nation. "That was no easy death either: Being roasted or jumping into the river when it was boiling," Jones said.

In World War II, pursuing an air war against enemy nations behind their battle lines meant that civilians died along with soldiers. The Japanese had no monopoly on this kind of suffering.

"Millions of civilians were killed in the war, and the Japanese did their fair share of annihilating civilians," he said.

Finally, contemplating the bomb has led Jones to embrace a contradiction, the kind of contradiction we all confront in this century when wars kill millions instead of hundreds or thousands.

"There is no moral ground for war. War is immoral. But we can't stop wars. When we have somebody fighting us, we fight back, and rightly so," he said. "Otherwise, we'd be living under the German flag or the Japanese flag."