Dutch Van Kirk, navigator of Enola Gay, dies at 93; visited Y-12 and Oak Ridge in 2000

vankirk

Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, the navigator of the Enola Gay and the last surviving member of the mission that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, is shown here at the American Museum of Science and Energy during a June 9, 2000 visit to Oak Ridge. (Department of Energy photo/Lynn Freeny)

Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, the last surviving member of the Enola Gay crew that delivered the atomic bomb and dropped it on Hiroshima, Japan, died earlier this week in Stone Mountain, Ga., at age 93. His death has brought forth numerous reports on his life and, of course, the unending debate about the use of the bomb to help end World War II.

Here is the Associated Press report by Kate Brumback, as it appeared in the Air Force Times. Here’s an obituary story by Steve Chawkins in the Los Angeles Times. And Richard Goldstein did a story in The New York Times.

Van Kirk was open and accessible during his 2000 visit to Oak Ridge, where he toured Y-12 and participate in anniversary events at the American Museum of Science and Energy.

Here is a story I wrote on his visit:

OAK RIDGE — When Capt. Dutch Van Kirk watched the mushroom cloud rise 40,000 feet above Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, he didn’t think about the historical significance or weigh the moral aspects of atomic war — questions he would be asked for the next half-century.

His first thought: “Thank God it worked.”

Van Kirk, navigator on the EnolaGay , the B-29 airplane used for the first nuclear mission, said there were real concerns that the bomb might be “a dud” or that the crew might somehow botch the job.

“So my first reaction was really one of relief,” Van Kirk said Friday during his first visit to Oak Ridge, one of the atomic cities created for the World War II Manhattan Project.

He toured old facilities at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, where the enriched uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb — known as “Little Boy” — was produced.

 “We had been training for like eight months to do this and we had done it and it had worked, and we had done our jobs successfully. Later on, as we were coming back (to the base on Tinian Island) … there was discussion about what this would mean to the war.”

Van Kirk, 79, who retired 15 years ago following a post-war marketing career with DuPont, lives in Novato, Calif., 10 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

He came to Oak Ridge to participate in an exhibit opening this weekend at the American Museum of Science & Energy, featuring wartime memorabilia — including a dollar bill signed by Van Kirk and many of the other principals on the A-bomb mission.

 Van Kirk insists the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima and a second one a few days later on Nagasaki did not win the war. The war already was won, he said, but the bombs helped prod the Japanese toward unconditional surrender and ultimately reduced the amount of death and destruction.

The U.S. decision to use atomic weapons on civilian populations continues to be a topic of debate in this country and abroad, but Van Kirk does not have any second thoughts about his role or feel any remorse.

“Oh, everybody keeps trying to get me to get down on my knees and cry about it and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and none of us ever have. None of us on the (12-member) crew ever have. To this day, the four people still living all say it was the right thing to do. … The atomic bomb saved a lot of lives. Don’t ever forget it.”

Van Kirk emphatically states that atomic bombs were not the chief instruments of destruction — incendiary bombs were. He said it’s a little-known fact that the largest B-29 missions of the war took place in Japan after the Nagasaki A-bomb, when targets across the country were fire-bombed.

Some of the wartime project’s scientists favored using the A-bomb for demonstration purposes, perhaps off the coast of Japan, hoping a show of its power would scare the Japanese into surrender. Van Kirk doesn’t think that would have worked.

“What happens if you have a war and nobody comes? How could you have gotten the Japanese there? They were kind of stubborn, you know, in those days. … They weren’t really the most cooperative people in the world.”

He said it was vitally important to end the war as quickly as possible to save lives and free those held in concentration camps. He said a friend of his, also a navigator on a B-29, was shot down over Tokyo.

“I won’t even describe everything they did to him, but let’s say it was pretty bad. He was shot down in February at 220 pounds. When he got out at the end of August, he was 102 pounds.”

Van Kirk agreed to come to Tennessee this weekend because it’s more or less on the way to Gulf Shores, Ala., where he’ll vacation with his family “until I get tired of the grandkids.”

When asked why he decided to drive cross-country rather than fly, he replied: “Have you been on the airlines lately? I don’t have an objection to flying. I have an objection to flying on the airlines. They treat you like a bunch of sheep.” 

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.