In late December 1945, William Earl Jones was shaving while stationed at Fukuoka Air Base in Japan when he was given a military order that would change his life.Jones, who grew up in Columbia City, had been drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1944. “I always wanted to fly," he said. The problem was, Jones had suffered from severe bouts of rheumatic fever often as a child. During his physical exam for the military, he was underweight and thus too small for a cockpit.
But he could handle a camera.
After completing basic training at Buckley Air Force Base (then called Buckley Field) in Colorado, Jones attended aerial photography school for six months.Assigned to the 5th Air Force, Jones was sent overseas to take photos for reconnaissance from B-24s, B-17s, B-26s and C46s. As only one aerial photographer was assigned per base, Jones was kept busy. Winding a strap around his hand and another around his body, Jones stood or crouched in an open window and sometimes doorway of planes. “I was scared of heights but not in a plane," he said.
His goal was told to look for things in an assigned area or identify features that might be of interest to troops. The pilot might fly over a certain area several times, with Jones holding his camera as steady as possible. “I usually shot at heights of 500-1,000 feet, which is considered low-altitude," he said.
His cameras were by today’s standards big and bulky, with bellows that folded in and out and glass lenses to make transparencies. “We only did day trips, because I had no flash,” he added.
Sometimes the enemy retaliated from below. “Our plane got hit but I was not injured," he said.
After the war ended in September 1945, Allied occupation troops stayed in Japan to help maintain order. Jones was given a photography studio on the Fukuoka base. “I didn't allow anyone else to develop photos in the dark room because I didn’t trust them,” he said.
In December 1945 when Jones was told to get his aerial camera ready, it was for one of his most unusual assignments. “We were scheduled to take aerial photos of the city of Hiroshima to film what the city looked like after the bomb was dropped," he said.
When the uranium bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, its impact covered two miles, vaporizing everything with a heat of 5,400 degrees. “The area was flat and I didn't see many people," he said.
A few weeks later, Jones was flown over the city of Nagasaki for initially the same purpose – to document the effect of the dropping of a plutonium bomb on Aug. 9, 1945. “Some buildings still stood because they had been reinforced against earthquakes," he said.
As a result of the devastation of the two bombs, the Japanese Imperial forces surrendered during an official ceremony in September 1945. World War II was over.
Sgt. Jones shot dozens of shots of the two cities from every direction. Certain aspects of the cities’ destruction stuck with him. “I saw the front end of a train driven halfway into the ground by the force of the bomb," he said. “I thought, ‘How could one bomb do all this?’”
Jones’ talents as a photographer developed into a passion. After his discharge in 1946, he established a studio in Columbia City called Jones Photo, which operated for several decades. He married in 1947, and he and his wife, Arline, became parents to four children.
He waited 45 years after taking the photos until the military gave him permission to talk about them. Since then, he estimated that before retiring, he presented his program about the bombings and photos to 600 school, military and civic groups in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.
Years after the war, Paul Tibbets, who piloted the B-29 Superfortress bomber which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, signed Jones’ photos, as did other members of crew.
Perhaps Jones’ most notable happening as a military aerial photographer occurred when he offered to donate several photos to the renowned Smithsonian Institution National Air & Space Museum Archives in Washington DC. In a letter to Jones acknowledging the museum’s interest in acquiring the photos, dated Oct. 8, 2010, Patricia Williams, acquisition archivist wrote, “We are certain your World War II service album donation will be of great interest to our researchers interested in World War II and the atomic bomb damage.”
Today, Jones resides in Huntington and still loves to talk about the war. “I guess I did okay for a kid with rheumatic fever," he said.