Former Clovis pilot accidental witness

Clovis resident and World War II pilot John Ellison, 84, retraces his route on an aerial map of New Mexico. (Staff photo: Sharna Johnson)

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Editor’s note: For three months, the Clovis News Journal has honored local World War II veterans by publishing their first-person accounts of service. John Ellison’s story was one of the more unusual.

John Ellison’s mission that morning focused on endurance. The B-29 commander, along with a flight engineer and four trainees, took off from Roswell Air Field just before 5 a.m. on July 16, 1945.

Their purpose, Ellison said, was to condition the trainees for their World War II bombing missions over Japan.

Ellison was already an experienced pilot, having flown 53 missions over the European theater. On this morning, he found himself with another front-row seat to history.

“We were not supposed to be there — we were uninvited guests,” the retired pharmacist said, remembering the morning he watched from 18,000 feet and an estimated 15 or 20 miles away as the first atomic bomb was detonated near Alamogordo.

The crew was cleared to fly to California as it prepared for the nine- to 12-hour bombing missions planned over Japan. The trainees were learning how to stretch a gallon of fuel to its limit.

Instead, Ellison said he and his crew were approximately 42 minutes into their flight, capping the northern portion of the Sacramento Mountain range bordering White Sands, when time froze.

He remembers a searing light permeated the cockpit of the plane, changing the terrain around them. He described a red fireball so intense, with a light so omnipresent, he had no reference to understand it.

“I thought the sun was rising on the wrong side. I turned to the east to look for the sun, to confirm it was where it should be,” he said.

Seconds later, clouds below them were penetrated by a mushroom-shaped column that rose to the heavens.

“It was higher than we were before it ballooned out” Ellison said.

What had he just seen?

Another B-29 had departed ahead of them that morning, carrying 10,000 pounds of high-octane fuel. Could he have witnessed a plane crash?

Concern led him to radio the tower back in Roswell.

“They told us to ‘Get those planes back,’ ” he said. Later, he learned authorities associated with the atomic bomb blast had overheard the radio transmission and ordered the Roswell base to call in the planes.

Ellison said there was little discussion among crew members — none of whom he knew, other than the flight engineer — as they returned to their base.

When they returned safely, along with the other B-29 crew, no explanation was offered for what they’d witnessed. Everything was routine, Ellison said.

The following morning, newspapers reported an ammunition depot had exploded west of Alamogordo. Witnesses reported seeing the blast as far away as Albuquerque and effects were felt at distances beyond 100 miles, according to government documents.

“We accepted their explanation, but it didn’t seem right to me. I knew it was more,” Ellison said.

Less than a month later, it all became clear. On Aug. 6, 1945, the atomic bomb was used against Japan. Upon hearing descriptions of that event, with its mushroom cloud and other details from witnesses’ reports, Ellison said he knew he’d seen the same thing over New Mexico.

Ellison, now 84, thumbed through his service record last week, producing yellow, aged paperwork clipped in a standard military folder. Those records include charts showing dates, aircraft and time measured in minutes.

The records show his July 16, 1945, flight lasted one hour and 25 minutes — “the shortest flight in my record” he said.

Ferenc Szasz, an atomic historian and author of a book about the Trinity test — “The Day the Sun Rose Twice” — said Ellison’s account of the test blast is consistent with his research.

The World War II era was a secretive time in American history, Szasz said.

Just before the White Sands blast, Szasz said an order had been issued grounding all commercial planes and suspending flights from nearby military installations. But with explanation lacking, Szasz said it’s not surprising that a base commander might have ignored an order that might hinder the training of his pilots.

Ellison, a Hobbs native who moved to Clovis in 1949, said he remembers rumors the next day from squadron personnel that an officer had ignored orders to ground the planes that day. The rumors were never confirmed.

Ellison said he tried to tell his story publicly before, but with no success.

Decades after the test blast, Ellison said he called a toll-free number established by the federal government for persons who thought they had been exposed to radiation.

While Ellison did not suspect exposure, he said he wanted to contribute to the study by reporting what he’d seen on the training mission.

“They pretty much pooh-poohed me and laughed at me. I was sorry that I even called,” Ellison said.

Now that he’s willing to talk about his experience publicly, experts may be calling him for the account. Ellison and his crew may have been closer than anyone else who witnessed the first atomic bomb blast from the air.

In a memorandum to the Secretary of War following the Trinity test, reference is made to a B-29 sent from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque to observe the test from the air. The memo states that the plane encountered weather difficulties and was not able to reach the target observation area, which was not disclosed. Instead the plane’s crew was forced to watch from farther away than planned. The exact distance is not known, but the pilot estimated in his report that he was 25 miles away.

Three of Ellison’s crew members did not witness the blast because they were in the back of the plane, he said. He does not know the names of the other two in the plane and said he has no idea if they might still be alive.

“He (Ellison) would be one of the few people to have seen the blast from the air. He had a unique view of the Trinity explosion. Thousands saw it but his is a unique contribution,” Szasz said.

Ellison pointed out another significance of timing that morning:

Had he left Roswell a few minutes earlier, his trip might have been fatal; a few minutes later and he might have missed it all together.

“We could have been burned pretty good; but we never thought about that back then,” Ellison said. “It was war and we were expendable units. We understood that.”