‘A footnote to history’ at Hiroshima

Posted 8/2/19

It was a story that wasn’t proven, at least in the main character’s telling, for many years.

But through the work of a Chatham County historian, Sgt. John McGlohan’s account of taking a …

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‘A footnote to history’ at Hiroshima

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It was a story that wasn’t proven, at least in the main character’s telling, for many years.

But through the work of a Chatham County historian, Sgt. John McGlohan’s account of taking a photo of Hiroshima after the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, was documented as true.

Chatham residents can hear more of the story and see more documentation on the event this upcoming Tuesday at the Chatham Community Library in Pittsboro as part of “Hiroshima: The Accidental Witness,” the story of McGlohan and capturing what Chatham resident Kenneth Samuelson called “a footnote to history.”

“It’s not in the history books,” Samuelson said of McGlohan’s experience. “But for about 15 minutes, it would be in the history books because they would have died from the explosion.”

The story of Hiroshima, Japan, and the end of World War II is well-known. The United States sent a B-29 bomber to drop the first atomic bomb, developed by The Manhattan Project, over Hiroshima, a manufacturing city about 500 miles from Tokyo. When the bomb detonated, 90 percent of the city was wiped out and 80,000 died instantaneously, with more to follow due to radiation exposure.

McGlohan, a member of the Army Air Force, was on a airplane in the area, about 20 minutes away from Hiroshima, when the bomb dropped. He worked as a photographer for the military doing reconnaissance. Even to this day, he’s not sure why he was at that particular spot at that particular time. But he got a picture just above the targeted site.

“A lot of people still say we weren’t there, but we have the picture to prove it,” McGlohan said. “It’s always been a mystery as to how we got there. My operations officer swears he didn’t know anything about it. As far as it being a planned deal, it couldn’t have been.”

The black-and-white photo he captured shows the docks of the city on one side, abutted by the ocean, and smoke rising from the bomb’s landing on the other side. The smoke looks like a large cloud covering the land below.

McGlohan brought the photo back to his superiors, and it was the last he saw of it for 50 years because it became classified.

A few days after Hiroshima, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, about 260 miles southwest, effectively ending World War II with Japan’s surrender.

In ensuing years, McGlohan came back to Asheboro and served on the city council and as police chief. He also shared his story of seeing Hiroshima the day the bomb dropped. But he always prefaced it with saying, “There’s no proof.”

Samuelson went to an event where McGlohan shared his story. A veteran himself, Samuelson was intrigued by the tale and, he says, determined to prove it was real.

“It was a moment in time that was perfect,” Samuelson said. “There were a lot of guys that were aging out, dying, but there were a lot that were still alive. Everybody that I talked to confirmed that they saw the picture or someone talked to them about it. There’s plenty of verification that John took that picture, that he was there in the plane as the photographer and they took the photo as the bomb went off.”

It’s this story, and more, that Samuelson will tell next week at the Chatham Community Library — the story of the photo, of Sgt. McGlohan, of researching and proving the photo’s existence and legitimacy.

“It’s probably the most significant event of World War II, the dropping of the first atomic bomb,” Samuelson said. “It’s what put everything in action to get Japan to surrender. This guy was there, and if he had been there 15 minutes earlier, we wouldn’t be having this program.”

McGlohan, who is now 94, said the story was “so unbelievable” that he “couldn’t convince anybody” for a long time. But Samuelson’s work, he said, meant a lot to him, and he’s grateful for the opportunities he gets to share it and talk about it.

“There’s a lot of people out there that still wonder about what happened,” McGlohan said. “I’ve told it a lot over the years and it seems to have fascinated a lot of people. I’m glad it’s still interesting.”

For those wanting to hear the rest of the story, the event at the library kicks off at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, August 6, 74 years to the day after McGlohan’s close call and historic photo.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

Want to Go?


“Hiroshima: The Accidental Witness”


Tuesday, Aug. 6; 6-8 p.m.


Chatham Community Library, 197 N.C. Highway 87 N, Pittsboro


The program takes place in the Holmes Meeting Room and is free and open to the public. Kenneth Samuelson, a Chatham resident and military historian, will speak on former Sgt. John McGlohan’s experience of witnessing the explosion of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, exactly 74 years after the event.

For more Information

Call the Library at 919-545-8083.


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