Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, a navigator who on Aug. 6, 1945, guided the Enola Gay over Hiroshima to drop the first nuclear bomb in the history of warfare, died Monday at an assisted living facility in Stone Mountain, Ga. He was 93.
The last surviving member of the Enola Gay’s 12-member crew, Van Kirk died of age-related causes, said his son Tom.
A veteran of 58 World War II combat missions over Europe and Africa, Van Kirk was told that he had been chosen for a top-secret bombing mission that could help end World War II. The payload was never specified.
Boarding the stripped-down B-29 on the island of Tinian in the northern Marianas, Van Kirk and his crewmates flew some 1,700 miles to Japan. They dropped a bomb code-named Little Boy, which took 43 seconds to detonate, generating a burst of heat estimated at 50 million degrees. At 8:16 a.m. local time, Little Boy ushered in the dawn of the atomic age, destroying most of Hiroshima in a blinding flash. A poisonous mushroom cloud rose more than 50,000 feet.
Van Kirk, who looked down at the city for a jarring moment and saw what he later likened to a pot of boiling tar, had just one thought at the time, he said in numerous interviews: “The war’s over.”
“Do I regret what we did that day? No sir, I do not,” he told the Sunday Mirror, a British newspaper, in 2010. “I have never apologized for what we did to Hiroshima and I never will.”
In succeeding generations, the question of nuclear weapons was anything but simple. Hiroshima, with at least 80,000 of its residents killed instantly and more contaminated by nuclear fallout, became a symbol. In 1995, anti-nuclear demonstrators poured blood and ashes over a piece of the Enola Gay on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Veterans groups, on the other hand, complained that the display, with its graphic depictions, was too sympathetic toward Japan and made short shrift of the Americans who would have died had the war continued.
Three days after Hiroshima, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On Aug. 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
Van Kirk was frequently asked whether he and the Enola Gay’s other crew members experienced any physical or emotional damage from the bombing.
“We did not suffer any effects from radiation, and none of us, I will add, had any psychological effects,” he told NPR on the bombing’s 60th anniversary in 2005. “None of us went crazy. None of us went into monasteries and everything else that a lot of people say we did.”
Born Feb. 27, 1921, in Northumberland, Pa., Van Kirk grew up on a farm. In October 1941, he enlisted as an Army aviator but washed out as a pilot. As a navigator, however, he flew many missions out of England and shuttled Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to North Africa.
After combat duty, he became a navigation instructor at various locations in the U.S. When he was teaching in New Orleans, his old friend, Paul Tibbets, who was then a lieutenant colonel, called to ask him if he’d like to be part of a secret mission.
Tibbets, who remained one of Van Kirk’s lifelong friends, became the Enola Gay’s commander.
The crew trained for months in Wendover, Utah. Among other maneuvers, they practiced the sharp turns they’d have to make to escape the bomb’s shock waves. Scientists said they’d need to be 11 miles from the blast to avoid being shaken apart. As it was they experienced what Van Kirk later described as “a hell of a jolt.”
On Aug. 5, 1945, the crew was staged on Tinian. Van Kirk, Tibbets and bombardier Tom Ferebee played poker that night.
“How else are you going to spend your time … after they tell you you’re going to be dropping the first atomic bomb?” Van Kirk once asked a reporter.
After their mission, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors.
As a civilian, Van Kirk received a degree in chemical engineering from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and spent 35 years working for DuPont. He lived in various spots around the U.S., including the Love Canal area near Niagara Falls, according to his biographer Suzanne Simon Dietz. In California, he made his home in the Marin County community of Novato.
Van Kirk didn’t talk much about Hiroshima until anniversaries started becoming major media events, his son said.
“He thought he did his duty,” his son said. “Given the circumstances the country found itself in, with an enemy showing no desire to not continue to engage in war, with invasion imminent, he felt it was exactly the kind of thing this country should have done.” In his later years, Van Kirk delivered that message to schools, veterans groups and history conclaves.
“He was intelligent, had a great sense of humor and was very gracious,” said Dietz, author of the 2012 biography “My True Course.” “He wanted to educate others about the war.”
Van Kirk was widowed twice. His survivors include sons Tom of Pittsburgh and Larry of Charlotte, N.C.; daughters Vicki Triplett of Atlanta and Joanne Gotelli of Sacramento, Calif.; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.