Jerry’s Top Secret Photography of WWII
Jerry Brown, age 98, remembers World War II in vivid detail. She was doing top secret work developing aerial photographs taken by bomber planes. These photographs allowed the military to determine if an air strike was successful or not. Back then, it took days, not moments, to determine if a battle went as planned. Jerry was the one who held the photographic evidence in her hand.
On August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Jerry’s Army Photo Intelligence team was waiting with armed security at the Pentagon, anticipating the photo footage. They had to wait 24 hours for the plane to cross the ocean and deliver the negatives.
“It was intense,” Jerry said. “We had to develop the negatives with just the right amount of light to burn through the smoke and the clouds to get to the ground images and find the devastation. I said, ‘Come here, look at this!’ Everyone gathered around, because these photos were so important. If the photo showed that the bomb didn’t hit the target, a pilot might have to risk his life to go bomb it again.”
The photographs revealed the entire process of the bomb dropping, followed by the mushroom cloud, and then the damage. Although it was rare for her photographs to reach public view, these were released to newspapers the next day. Jerry describes each step of the work she did 75 years ago in incredible detail. Back then, a “mapper” plane was first sent to do a research flyover and take informational photos of an area. Based on the images, the next plane could then bomb the right spot.
The planes had three cameras attached to their “bellies.” One angled left, one angled right and one was centered. All three cameras lined up so that together, they made a continuous photo, much like a panoramic photo. “The rolls of film were huge, 10×10” with 360 negatives per roll, because once a plane loaded and left, you couldn’t stop and change film mid-flight,” Jerry said.
Jerry found the work exhilarating, although she confesses to a high level of optimism, even during the darkest of times. “And I spent a lot of time in the dark,” Jerry quipped, referring to her time developing in the dark room.
Jerry already had her teaching degree when she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corp. During the war, she was one of many women who entered the workplace as men shipped overseas. For a Chickasaw woman to receive such high military training and clearance would have been unheard of a decade before. Jerry remembers wearing military-issued dresses made of white-and-green striped fabric, complete with bloomers. “Bloomers are like a pair of shorts, except they have elastic at the bottom. That way, if you bent over a bunch of negatives at work, you weren’t ‘exposed.’”
It is likely Jerry’s sense of humor has contributed to her long life. “I learned early on, when my father was killed, that you could make good out of bad things or let them ruin you. Being in the military was great for me. I traveled the United States and did exciting work.”
Jerry has survived everyone in her squadron. “And I’m going to be very mad if I don’t make it to 100-years-old, after making it this long!” she declared. At this point, she’s the only remaining person left with a first-hand memory of the aerial view of that first atomic bomb, because even the pilots who actually dropped the bomb from the Enola Gay B-29 bomber are also gone. Fortunately, photographic evidence of that moment in history will exist into the future—and it’s because of Jerry’s efforts.