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14th IS finds its ‘pot of gold,’ discovers WWII vet

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joel McCullough
  • 445th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Tucked away in Mercer County, Pennsylvania lives a 93-year-old World War II veteran who holds a unique piece of Air Force history.

John Johnson, known as Jerry back in Mercer, served in the 9th Photographic Technical Squadron during the time of the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Johnson was discovered after two years of historical research by the 14th Intelligence Squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio as the unit tried to uncover its lineage.

When the research begin, the 14th IS was not given much information besides activation dates, higher headquarters names, and where the unit was stationed, said Lt. Col. Dianne T. Hickey, commander of the 14th IS.

For two years they were unsuccessful in gaining information. The 14th IS tried searching with the Air Force Historical Research Agency, the Air Force Libraries, numerous internet searches, and even with Will Rogers Field, Oklahoma City, the first duty station of the 9th PTS.

June 5, 2016, while looking through books and becoming frustrated, Hickey said she returned to the internet for help. One specific search led her to a partial article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dated Sept. 7, 1997. The article was about someone named Johnson, from Mercer County, Pa. The article stated Johnson was having a reunion with 9th PTS members and that he had photographs of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“I called the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archives,” said Hickey. “They pulled up the full article and provided Mr. Johnson’s first name. They could not send me the full article, but they did instruct me how I could sign up a paid subscription and download the full article, which I did.”

As recommended by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hickey called the Mercer County Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. The American Legion provided contact information for their state headquarters.

“I called the American Legion State Headquarters, who had ‘too many’ John Johnsons to be helpful,” said Hickey. She then asked if they could narrow the search with keywords “WWII” and “Mercer County.” That’s when they found the name John G. Johnson of Mercer County. This Johnson was a 93-year-old WWII veteran and lifetime member of the American Legion.

Hickey was provided an address but no other further details. She said the internet provided a phone number that correlated with the address. She called the number and left a message. Later that evening Johnson returned her call. The unit had finally found its “pot of gold.”

“After jumping out of bed with excitement, I grabbed paper and pen and started taking notes as he confirmed he was a member of the 9th Photographic Technical Squadron, stationed at Will Rogers Field and Guam, and had ‘hundreds’ of photos, negatives and documents from the 9th PTS,” she said.

Hickey traveled to Mercer County along with John Gephart, a National Air and Space Intelligence Center videographer, who offered support and recorded the interview.

Johnson started out his military career in photography as part of the 946th Reconnaissance Squadron, a photo group under the 3rd Air Force Command. According to Johnson, the 946th RS did a lot of photography in the United States mostly from P-38 Lightning aircraft.

“Sometime between 1944 and 1945 we were in the 9th Photographic Technical Squadron,” Johnson said. “Right after the peace in Europe, I think in April 1945, we embarked.”

The 9th PTS embarked to Guam, he said. There they supported all the heavy bombers that flew out of Guam. They did a lot of photography work over the Pacific Ocean, up into Japan. Most of the photographs were taken on B-29 Superfortresses and the cameras had 30 inches of focal length and were all automatic, Johnson added. There was a smaller camera, the C-20, that was used as a handheld device.

“In those days, you flew at 10,000 feet, had a little magnifying device and you could identify a tiny little ship on a photograph not more than three quarters of an inch and determine what the ship was and what they were doing,” said Johnson.

He went on to explain that the inside a 30-inch focal length camera there was a large roll of film, around 100 feet long and 8 inches wide. Once the camera was used for photos, the film was brought back and put in a special device. In this device, the film was developed in a can, then put through processing. Then it was taken to the printers, and they would process the negative. The prints were then given to someone at 20th Air Force for analysis and planning.

Johnson said the only time he recalls the 9th PTS working with secret and top secret photos was when they were working with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The bomb was dropped on August of 1945,” he said. “Prior to that time, of course, there was the reconnaissance on several cities in Japan. Hiroshima was not the first choice.”

Johnson could not remember the other cities they looked at.

“However, I have copies of leaflets that were dropped on seven or eight cities that were going to be bombed to tell the Japanese that this was going to happen.”

Johnson was a photograph processor, and he recalled seeing the before and after strike photographs.

“I couldn’t believe it -- no one could believe it. You couldn't imagine the force that thing had,” he said.

The 9th PTS was in photo production until February 1946. Once the unit was released, they were sent home.

“I am proud to have served in the 9th Photo and done my little part,” said Johnson. “I think it was very helpful in the war and in the Pacific. It was a good outfit with good men.”

Johnson was honorably discharged as a technical sergeant in April of 1946.

Hickey plans to formally host Johnson in Dayton September 23-24, 2016. During the visit, Johnson will share his military history, tour the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, and visit the 14th IS, where Hickey will recognize him as an honorary squadron member.