Canfield vet part of team that filmed atomic blast
By J.T. Whitehouse
CANFIELD — William Phillips, 97, has enjoyed a long life, serving for 40 years as an Ohio State University Extension agent.
His desire to serve goes even deeper after he enlisted in the Army Air Corps when he turned 18.
Phillips grew up in Wayne County and graduated from Wooster High School in 1941. He headed to The Ohio State University to earn a degree in agriculture, but that was cut short when he enlisted.
“I enlisted and was assigned to the Army Air Corps,” Phillips said. “I shipped out to Miami, Florida, for basic training, then was sent to Denver, Colorado, for additional training.”
Phillips ended up attending bombardier school and graduated in February of 1945 as a second lieutenant. He was assigned to Kirtland Air Base in Albuquerque, N.M., where his training was about to take another turn.
“The need for bombardiers was reduced, but there was a need for airborne radar operators,” Phillips said.
That fact saw him heading to Boca Raton Army Air Field in Florida, where he earned his radar qualifications. With his new skills, Phillips was sent to Clovis Army Airfield, which housed the 302nd Bombardment Group that included the B-24, B-17 and the B-29 heavy bombers. Phillips was assigned to a B-29 crew.
“The B-29s were pressurized, unlike other aircraft,” he said. “You could fly at 10,000 feet without an oxygen mask.”
With his B-29 training, Phillips found himself being shipped to Roswell, N.M. His B-29 aircraft had its machine guns removed and replaced with cameras. Phillips’ aircraft and crew were about to take on a very special mission.
“On July 1, 1946, two tests were being conducted at Bikini Atoll (Marshall Islands),” he said. “One was an atomic bomb dropped from the air, and a second was a similar bomb exploded under water. The mission of our B-29 was to circle the area and film the blasts.”
He said several B-29s were to form at equal distances at a 10-mile radius around the bomb site. The radar operators were key to keeping the big, camera-equipped bombers equal distances apart and at the proper range to be able to take lots of photos.
“We sure saw the blast, and there were air currents formed that shook our aircraft,” Phillips said.
He said that down below on the ocean surface the operation had what seemed to be hundreds of vessels set at various distances from the target ship.
Following the atomic bomb test, Phillips was shipped back to the states and was sent to St. Louis, Mo., to work in an air photo lab, where he developed the photos.
“I had to put together a bomb test album (for the general),” Phillips said.
Following his time in the photo lab, Phillips boarded a train and went back to Roswell and was honorably discharged on Dec. 31, 1946. He said the conversation of the day was the big debate on whether the U.S. should have dropped the bomb.
“For us on that troop train, we were delighted that the war was finally over,” Phillips said.
He returned to OSU and finished his degree and in 1948 was hired as an OSU Extension agent. Phillips kept up his farming skills, and, in 1988, he retired after 40 years. Today, he lives in Canfield with his wife, Susan Phillips. The couple have a daughter, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They also had a son, Bob Phillips, who was a deceased veteran.
As to advice for young people today, Phillips said, “I recommend young people serve their country because the world is a very unsafe place.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: To suggest a veteran for this series, which runs through Veterans Day, email metro editor Marly Reichert at email@example.com.
SERVICE BRANCH: Army Air Corps
OCCUPATION: Mahoning County OSU Extension agent for 40 years
FAMILY: Wife, Susan; one daughter, Janet; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren