Theodore Van Kirk died a hero. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
In the predawn hours of Aug. 6, 1945, he was the navigator for Col. Paul Tibbets Jr. aboard the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, effectively ending World War II.
Twelve men were part of the crew that day, with Van Kirk being the last surviving member. He died Monday, at the age of 93.
Critics like to chastise the United States for being the only nation in history to use an atomic bomb during times of warfare. We praise President Harry Truman for having the courage to make such a difficult decision as well as the crew of the Enola Gay for successfully carrying out the mission. Had it not occurred, the war would have continued with an invasion of Japan. Military experts concur such an invasion would have been one of the bloodiest in history.
Those American soldiers who had their lives saved were the fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers of many of you who are reading this right now. They and their offspring helped build the United States into the great nation it is today.
Van Kirk was simply known as “Dutch” to his crew mates, who represented a cross section of America. They came from cities like Chicago and Baltimore, the New York City borough of Brooklyn, and dots on the map such as Mocksville, North Carolina; Logan, Utah; and Northumberland, Pennsylvania, which was the home of Van Kirk.
In the 2000 book, “Duty,” written by Bob Greene, Van Kirk remembered the dropping of the atom bomb as “a sense of relief.”
He noted, “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.”
There were no computers or Global Positioning Satellites to guide the Enola Gay, named after Tibbets’ mother: only Van Kirk, who kept track of the plane’s bearings by using his brain, charts and a hand-held instrument called a sextant, which measures the angular distance of the sun or a star from the horizon.
It was 8:15 a.m. in Japan – 6½ hours after the Enola Gay left the Mariana Islands just east of the Philippines – when the B-29 reached Hiroshima, a city of 250,000 and the site of an important army headquarters. The Enola Gay was only a few seconds behind schedule when it released “Little Boy,” the name given to the atomic bomb. It took 43 seconds for the bomb to fall 1,890 feet, where in a flash of a light, it left tens of thousands dead or dying.
Van Kirk said he never forgot his first thoughts – “God, I’m glad it worked” – when looking back and seeing the cloud where Hiroshima had been.
“The entire city was covered with smoke and dust and dirt … like a pot of black, boiling tar. You could see some fires burning on the edge of the city, ” Van Kirk told The New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima raid.
By 3 p.m., the crew was safely back at he Mariana Islands, where Van Kirk said they were greeted 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.
Van Kirk became a chemical engineer after leaving the military, retiring from DuPont in 1985. He moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, near one of his daughter, following his wife’s death in 1975.
He will be buried in a private ceremony Tuesday next to his wife in central Pennsylvania where they raised their four children.