Charles Levy was a first lieutenant in the 393rd Bombardment Squadron of the 509th Composite Group. He served as a bombadier in the original crew of the Bockscar. Levy participated in the mission to drop the second atomic bomb. He flew in the Great Artiste, rather than Bockscar, because a complication with the flight equipment caused Colonel Tibbets to switch the crews of each plane. The Great Artiste provided instrument support during the flight to Nagasaki.
Twenty-six-year-old lieutenant Charles Levy captured the photograph of the devastation of Nagasaki with his personal camera while aboard the B-29 aircraft The Great Artiste, an observation plane that flew near the strike plane Bockscar to record the power of the blast. And it’s fortunate that Levy did. According to the book Critical Assembly, a physicist with a high-speed Fastax camera had originally been scheduled to capture the explosion from the camera plane, Big Stink, but while gearing up he accidentally grabbed a second life raft—instead of a parachute—and as a result was forced to remain back at the airfield. Further, the camera plane didn’t make it to the meeting point on time to join the other two planes on the mission. As a result Levy, the bombardier on The Great Artiste, snapped what became one of the most defining images of the explosion.
Levy shot several images of the explosion at different stages, but the most powerful image captures the terrifying spectacle as the mushroom cloud climbed into the stratosphere, its billowing white top highlighted against the dark background. This was the image of the bomb that America presented to the world, while photographs of the devastated city and its tens of thousands of civilian dead were rarely seen.
Charles Levy was discharged from the US Air Force later that month, to return to Philadelphia to take up a job as a salesman. He later became a city fire inspector and died in 1997, aged 79. Today his name is mainly remembered by photographic and military historians. His iconic photograph remains a chilling symbol of the destructive power of nuclear weapons.