Local veteran's rare 1945 Nagasaki bombing photos headed to Library of Congress

Milton Dienes, 93, of King of Prussia with his collection of photographs from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. Dienes was an Army Air Corps photographer sent in to document the bomb's effects.

Milton Dienes was dispatched in November 1945 to Nagasaki, Japan, as an Army Air Corps photographer, just 100 days after an atomic bomb obliterated much of the city, killing at least 40,000 people instantly and thousands more from the lasting effects of radiation exposure.

Then, Dienes didn't know the danger of radiation exposure and he walked the streets of the hilly, historic port city without protective gear.

The streets of Nagasaki Dienes walked were mostly deserted. He saw collapsed homes once made of sheet metal. Most of the homes weren't built very well, he said, and some "just blew away" in the atomic blast.

Concrete buildings appeared to have melted together in the bomb's intense heat - their textured surfaces smoothed by the high temperatures. "It was almost like a glass surface," Dienes recalled.

Nagasaki was mostly factories and buildings then - there were few people to photograph, which "was actually better," he said, because their suffering would have been hard for him to face.

"The damage, it was strange," said Dienes, now 92, who lives with his wife Harriet in King of Prussia. "It left an impression, something you can't possibly forget."

Dienes, a member of the Army Air Corps' 9th Photographic Technical Unit, captured with his Speed Graphic camera unforgettable images of the catastrophic destruction of Aug. 9, 1945. He and his buddies also processed the historic photos taken by pilots of Boeing B-29 Superfortress planes as the atomic bombs were being dropped on Hiroshima and, three days later, on Nagasaki.

Those blasts are widely credited for Japan's surrender and the end of World War II.

Dienes and his squadron returned to their lab in Guam to develop hundreds of original, on-the-ground and aerial photos that captured the bomb drops and subsequent destruction in Nagasaki.

Those historic images, unpublished and mostly unseen outside the military, are now destined for the Library of Congress archives.

"I have all these photographs and the stories that go along with them," he said.

"I've had some stuff published, but I didn't expect anything like that," Dienes said.

About two months ago, Dienes got a phone call from Col. Diane Hickey, commander of 14th Intelligence Squadron based in Dayton, Ohio.

"It was so out of the blue because, number one, I had no connection to Dayton," Dienes said. "I just knew it was a major base for U.S. intelligence."

Hickey had been searching for Dienes for years. The 14th Intelligence Squadron inherited the lineage of the 9th Photo Technical Unit, but she had almost no record of its existence.

"They had no information whatsoever of what we did there - not only that, but they had no photographs," Dienes said. "They didn't know what we did or how we did it."

After two years of searching, Hickey finally found Dienes online, listed as a veteran of the unit.

"I came across Mr. Dienes, and found this rich history that we didn't even know about," she said. "These were the guys that processed the photos from Nagasaki."

Out of more than 100 original members of the 1945 9th Photographic Technical Unit, Hickey found Dienes and one other veteran, John "Jerry" Johnson from Mercer, Pa.

"They're still living, they still remember the stories, their minds are still sharp," Hickey said. "They have great memories that have not been recorded, and photos."

She invited the two veterans to spend a long weekend in late September in Dayton, hoping to introduce them to the current members of 14th Intelligence Squadron.

"By the time we finished, they had a lot of information that they didn't know before," Dienes said. "They copied every photograph I brought with me ... probably 75 or 100 photographs which they never had before."

Dienes and other members of his squadron built the photo lab in Guam in 1945 - a structure that looked more like a shack than a studio. Developing photos in the lab back then was "primitive" at best, Dienes said.

Days in Guam were usually hot, around 80 degrees. Dienes explained that photo negatives required cool temperatures to properly develop, so he kept an icemaker in the lab, producing 8,000 pounds of ice a day to ensure the right conditions to develop nearly 14,000 photos.

Now 71 years old, those black-and-white photographs shot on 4-by-5-inch film are still in "really good shape," he said, "which means we did a good job in the lab when we made them."

Dienes, born and raised in the Logan neighborhood of North Philadelphia, graduated in 1942 from Central High School, where he was a school yearbook photo editor. He headed to Pennsylvania State University to earn a pre-med undergraduate degree, but his education was interrupted shortly after his freshman year.

A telegram arrived on May 29, 1943, instructing Dienes to report for duty the next morning.

But he had a scheduling conflict.

"It was my parents' 25th wedding anniversary, and we had a big party planned," Dienes said. "So I called the colonel - I didn't know any better - and I told him I had a problem with that date."

Dienes said the colonel told him his problem was "irregular," to say the least, but he nonetheless granted his request to stay home and celebrate with his parents. It wasn't until August 1943 that the Army instructed him to report for duty in the 75th Infantry Division in Alabama.

The division was preparing to fight in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge, but Dienes was transferred last minute to the Air Corps. He trained in Mississippi and in Oklahoma, using his experience to help "put together" the photo squadron and teach pilots to use cameras for the first time.

Dienes served in Guam from May 1945 to March 1946.

After he was discharged, he returned to Penn State to continue his sophomore year, but he didn't complete his degree. Instead, he did some photographic work in the city before joining Jerrold Electronics as a salesman. Later, he was director of marketing at General Instrument, a Horsham-based electronics company.

About 30 years ago, Dienes founded Summit Sales & Marketing, a manufacturer's representative company for consumer electronics and computer products. By the time he retired in September 1990, he had earned $96 million in sales, just shy of his lifetime goal of $100 million.

When Dienes retired, his only son Garry took over the business.

For the most part, Dienes has only shown his photos and told his story sparingly, mostly at local libraries and country clubs. He has had no ill effects from any radiation exposure in Nagasaki.

"I don't glow at night," he joked.

His mind is sharp: Dienes can still recall every story, every detail of his involvement in World War II without hesitation. He displays his Nagasaki photographs with pride - some of them are mounted on a large poster in his dining room, looking almost like new; the others are tucked away in a photo album, protected from the light.

Sharing his photos with the 14th Intelligence Squadron in Dayton will forever be "one of the greatest experiences of my life," Dienes said.

"It's great as we start to get older and start to appreciate those that went before us in the military," Hickey said. "The fact of the matter is: They are a part of history, and they're a part of our history."

mwinberg@philly.com

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