Theodore (Dutch) Van Kirk, the navigator and last surviving crew member of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in the last days of World War II, died on July 28, 2014 at his home in Stone Mountain, Ga.
His son Thomas confirmed the death. He was 93.
In the predawn hours of Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, piloted by Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. and carrying a crew of 12, took off from Tinian in the Mariana Islands with a uranium bomb built under extraordinary secrecy in the vast Manhattan Project.
Captain Van Kirk spread out his navigation charts on a small table behind Colonel Tibbets’s seat. From that spot, at the end of a long tunnel atop the bomb bays, he took the plane’s bearings, using a hand-held sextant to guide with the stars.
When the Enola Gay reached Iwo Jima as the sun rose, it began an ascent to 31,000 feet. At 8:15 a.m. Japan time, it reached Hiroshima, a city of 250,000 and the site of an important army headquarters.
The bombardier, Maj. Thomas W. Ferebee, said, “I got it,” announcing that the Enola Gay was over his aiming point, the T-shaped Aioi Bridge.
Captain Van Kirk, who had also familiarized himself with Hiroshima’s landmarks, leaned over Major Ferebee’s shoulder and confirmed he was correct.
His navigating skills had brought the Enola Gay to its target only a few seconds behind schedule at the conclusion of a six-and-a-half-hour flight.
Major Ferebee released the bomb, known as Little Boy, and 43 seconds later, at 1,890 feet above ground zero, it exploded in a nuclear inferno, leaving tens of thousands dead or dying and turning Hiroshima into scorched devastation.
Colonel Tibbets executed a diving turn to avoid the blast effects, but the Enola Gay was buffeted by a pair of shock waves. A flash of light that Van Kirk likened to a photographer’s flashbulb engulfed the cabin.
“The plane jumped and made a sound like sheet metal snapping,” Van Kirk told The New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima raid.
“Shortly after the second wave, we turned to where we could look out and see the cloud, where the city of Hiroshima had been.”
He added: “The entire city was covered with smoke and dust and dirt. I describe it looking like a pot of black, boiling tar. You could see some fires burning on the edge of the city.”
Van Kirk remembered “a sense of relief.”
“Even though you were still up there in the air and no one else in the world knew what had happened, you just sort of had a sense that the war was over, or would be soon,” he told Bob Greene in Mr. Greene’s 2000 book, “Duty.”
Shortly before 3 p.m., the crewmen returned to Tinian and were greeted, as Van Kirk told it, by “more generals and admirals than I had ever seen in one place in my life.”
Three days later, another B-29 dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. On Aug. 15, Japan surrendered, bringing World War II to an end.
Theodore Van Kirk — everybody called him Dutch — was born and reared in Northumberland, Pa. He attended Susquehanna College for a year, then became an Army Air Forces cadet in October 1941.
Colonel Tibbets, flying with the Eighth Air Force out of England, selected Captain Van Kirk and Major Ferebee for his crew the next year.
Their B-17 Flying Fortress, named “Red Gremlin,” became the lead plane in the 97th Bomb Group’s missions and flew Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gibraltar in November 1942 in preparation for the invasion of North Africa.
After 58 missions over Europe and North Africa, Captain Van Kirk returned to the United States to train navigators.
When Colonel Tibbets was selected to command the 509th Composite Group, a unit of 1,800 airmen assembled in Utah in the fall of 1944 to train for delivering the atomic bomb, he brought Captain Van Kirk and Major Ferebee with him.
This time they trained on the newly developed B-29’s.
As Van Kirk recalled Colonel Tibbets’s words in a 2005 Time magazine interview: “He told me, ‘We’re going to do something that I can’t tell you about right now, but if it works, it will end or significantly shorten the war.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, buddy, I’ve heard that before.’ ”
In the summer of 1945, the 509th conducted its final training on Tinian, and President Harry S. Truman gave the order to drop the atomic bomb.
Whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb has been debated endlessly. Van Kirk thought it was necessary because it shortened the war and eliminated the need for an Allied land invasion that could have cost more lives on both sides.
“I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run. There were a lot of lives saved. Most of the lives saved were Japanese,” Van Kirk said.
But it also made him wary of war.
“The whole World War II experience shows that wars don’t settle anything. And atomic weapons don’t settle anything,” he said.
“I personally think there shouldn’t be any atomic bombs in the world — I’d like to see them all abolished. But if anyone has one,” he added, “I want to have one more than my enemy.”
The crews that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seen by Americans as saviors for ending the war. But over the years, the morality of atomic warfare and the need for the bombings has been questioned.
Van Kirk joined his fellow crewmen in “unwavering” defense of the atomic raids.
“We were fighting an enemy that had a reputation for never surrendering, never accepting defeat,” he said. “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence.”
He continued: “Where was the morality in the bombing of Coventry, or the bombing of Dresden, or the Bataan Death March, or the Rape of Nanking, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor? I believe that when you’re in a war, a nation must have the courage to do what it must to win the war with a minimum loss of lives.”
Van Kirk stayed on with the military for a year after the war ended and retired from military service in 1946 as a major, having received the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross.
Earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from Bucknell University Van Kirk became a marketing executive with DuPont where he stayed until he retired in 1985.
He later moved from California to the Atlanta area to be near his daughter. Besides his son Thomas, survivors include another son, Larry; two daughters, Vicki Triplett and Joanne Gotelli; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Like many World War II veterans, Van Kirk didn’t talk much about his service until much later in his life when he spoke to school groups, his son said.
“I didn’t even find out that he was on that mission until I was 10 years old and read some old news clippings in my grandmother’s attic,” Tom Van Kirk said in a phone interview.
Instead, he and his three siblings treasured a wonderful father, who was a great mentor and remained active and “sharp as a tack” until the end of his life.
“I know he was recognized as a war hero, but we just knew him as a great father,” Tom Van Kirk said.
Van Kirk’s military career was chronicled in a 2012 book, “My True Course,” by Suzanne Dietz. Van Kirk was energetic, very bright and had a “terrific sense of humor,” Dietz recalled.
Interviewing Van Kirk for the book, she said, “was like sitting with your father at the kitchen table listening to him tell stories.”
A funeral service was held for Van Kirk on August 5th in his hometown of Northumberland, Pennsylvania where he was buried next to his wife, who died in 1975.