Obit of the Day: The Last Crew Member of the Enola Gay
The Enola Gay* was 31,000 feet above Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 at 8:15 a.m. when it released its payload - “Little Boy,” the first atomic bomb. After dropping the bomb, the pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, turned the plane and headed back to base in the Mariana Islands.
The crew was told that they had 43 seconds to leave the area before the bomb detonated 1,890 feet in the air over the city of 350,000. Navigator Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk began counting in his head (“one one-thousand”, “two one-thousand”) and at 43 there was nothing. He and his crew mates thought it was dud.
Then the cabin filled with a bright light and the "plane jumped and made a sound like sheet metal snapping." Looking back he saw that Hiroshima was no longer visible, "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.”
Chosen as a military target housing several divisions of the Japanese army as well as serving as a key shipping port, an estimated 70-80,000 residents of Hiroshima were killed by the blast or resultant fires. Another 70,000 men, women, and children were injured. (Thousands later died of radiation poisoning or radiation-related illnesses.)
Three days later another plane dropped a second atomic bomb (“Fat Man”) on the city of Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered that same day. (The official surrender occured on September 1, 1945.)
Mr. Van Kirk joined the Army Air Corps cadet program (a precursor to the U.S. Air Force Academy) just two months before the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. Following his training, he was recruited by Colonel Tibbets as navigator, along with Major Thomas Ferebee as bombadier.
Together the threesome flew 58 missions during World War II. This included transporting General Dwight Eisenhower to Gibraltar in 1942 for the planning of the Allied invasion of North Africa.
Mr. Van Kirk was reassigned stateside as a training officer after mission 58 but Colonel Tibbets recalled him as part of the newly created 509th Composite Group. The group was formed to specifically handle the transport and delivery of the atomic bomb.
Mr. Van Kirk, and the 12-man crew of the Enola Gay, would train for six months before deing deployed to Hiroshima. The flight was nine hours from the base at Tinian on the Marianas and Mr. Van Kirk’s navigation (using a compass, map, and sextant) had them arrive at the target only 15 seconds behind schedule.
During his servince in the Army Air Corps Mr. Van Kirk reached the rank of major and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Silver Star. But he kept his most historic flight quiet, not even telling his children until they discovered newspaper clippings in his mother’s attic.
Following the war Mr. Van Kirk attended Bucknell University and worked as a chemical engineer at DuPont.
He did not regret dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. He, like many of his generation, believed that a coming land invasion of Japan by Allied forces would have killed many thousands more. “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.”
When asked about the moral implications of dropping the bomb, Mr. Van Kirk answered, “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.”
Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, who was retirement home neighbors with one of the last living crewman of the USS Missouri where the Japanese army officially surrendered, died on July 28, 2014 at the age of 93.
Sources: NY Times, AJC.com, Mental Floss, and Wikipedia
(Image of then-Captain Theodore Van Kirk, Colonel “Birdie” Tibbets, and Major Thomas Ferebee standing next to the Enola Gay in 1945 following their mission to Hiroshima. U.S. Air Force, via Agence France-Press — Getty Images, via The New York Times)
* The plane was named for the pilor, Colonel Paul Tibbets’ mother, Enola Gay.
Other relevant Obit of the Day posts:
Nathan Safferstein - Autographed the atomic bomb
Senji Yamaguchi - Survivor of the Nagasaki bomb who became a voice for disarmament