It has been nearly 64 years since Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk helped make history and end a war.
Though he left the military soon after World War II, he’s never forgotten those days or his final bombing mission.
On the eve of another Memorial Day weekend, his 88th, he is in Middle Georgia to help others remember and to be sure the record is straight.
Van Kirk was the navigator for the special crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress Bomber captained by Paul Tibbets Jr. that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. It was hoped that the weapon developed in the top-secret Manhattan project would bring an end to the war.
It didn’t immediately, and three days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki by another crew in another B-29. Finally, Japan surrendered.
In the years since, many have questioned the morality of the United States’ use of the atomic bomb.
But Van Kirk has never doubted it was the right thing to do.
“It was war, and all war is awful, but it ended the war. There’s not a GI who was over there in the Pacific then who will say we shouldn’t have dropped it. They were going to have to invade Japan, and the losses, ours and theirs, would have been so much worse.”
Estimates at the time were that there might be a million U.S. casualties if Japan’s home islands had to be invaded and conquered with ground forces.
Now, Van Kirk, the last surviving member of the 12-man crew that flew to Hiroshima that day, speaks to veterans groups, high schools, civic clubs and any others who will listen to his story.
“I probably speak three or four times a month now,” Van Kirk said. “I went to a high school not long ago and asked the students if they knew anything about World War II. One boy waved his hand and said, ‘I do, I do. That’s when we and the Germans fought the Russians.’
“The kids today don’t know the history. That’s because their teachers and parents don’t know. But I try to tell them.”
Van Kirk grew up in Pennsylvania and went to college for a year before enlisting about a year before the U.S. entered World War II.
“I could see the war in Europe and knew it was coming to us. I didn’t want to get drafted into the infantry, so I joined the Army Air Force,” he said.
He wanted to be a pilot but washed out in training. He was going to volunteer to fly for Britain, but a captain talked him into staying in the Army and going to navigator school instead.
Soon he found himself in Florida with the 97th Bomber Group, 340th Squadron. There he first met pilot Paul Tibbets and bombardier Thomas Ferebee. They trained together and later crewed together in B-17s flying the first U.S. bombing missions over Europe from England.
Later, they flew Gen. Dwight Eisenhower on missions to North Africa, and then were sent home and broken up to train new crews.
Soon after, Van Kirk was contacted by Tibbets, who had been chosen to select crews for the atomic bomb missions being planned.
“He asked if I wanted to be in on something that could end the war. I said, ‘Sure, we’ve all heard that one before.’ But he told me this was really different,” Van Kirk said.
So after 58 bombing missions in Europe, he was back off to war, this time in the Pacific.
Only this time, he flew just one mission.
After the war ended, Van Kirk said he considered staying in the service, but after seeing commands going to young West Point graduates rather than experienced war veterans, he decided to leave and go back to college. He earned degrees in chemical engineering and went to work for DuPont.
“I found out private industry can be a lot like the military — a lot of politics — but DuPont was good to me, and I’m still living on my pension from them,” he said.
Three years ago, he moved to Stone Mountain after spending 28 years in California.
“People here in the South appreciate the military and veterans more. Memorial Day in California is nothing, just a day off. Here, some of the people still try to remember and honor those who have served, and those serving now.”
Van Kirk was invited to Macon to speak Thursday to an informal group of veterans, mostly from the Vietnam War, who get together a couple of mornings a week in Warner Robins to drink coffee and swap stories, said Tom McLendon, one of the group’s founders.
After their dinner at Golden Corral in Macon on Thursday night, Van Kirk will be at Majestic Frames, 2507 Moody Road, in Warner Robins today from noon to 2:30 p.m. to meet people and sign books about the Enola Gay.
Then, he is scheduled to head back to his retirement community in Stone Mountain.
“It’s a really nice place except for one thing,” he said. “Too many old people.”
But they do probably know who the U.S. fought during World War II.