69 years and 3 days after the order to drop the atomic bomb was issued, Air Force captain Theodore Van Kirk died at the age of 93 in Stone Mountain, Ga. Mr. Van Kirk—everyone called him “Dutch”— was the navigator of the B-29 aircraft, Enola Gay, which carried out the bombing mission on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Only 24-years old, and already a veteran of 58 missions in North Africa, Dutch Van Kirk was stationed in the United States training future navigators when his former Commander, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, selected him to be his navigator in the 509th Composite Group, headquartered in Wendover, Utah. This hastily formed group would be responsible for delivering the Atomic Bomb, if and when it was successfully developed and tested.
According to Van Kirk, “When [Colonel Paul] Tibbetts was picked to be commanding officer [in 1944], he named me group navigator. He told me, ‘We’re going to do something that I can’t tell you about right now, but if it works, it will end or significantly shorten the war.’ And I thought, Oh, yeah, buddy. I’ve heard that before.”
War Department Office of the Chief of Staff Washington, D.C.
25 July 1945
To: General Carl Spaats
United States Army Strategic Air Forces
1. The 509 Composite Group, 20th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Nilgata and Nagasaki. To carry military and civilian scientific personnel from the War Department to observe and record the effects of the explosion of the bomb, additional aircraft will accompany the airplane carrying the bomb. The observing planes will stay several miles distant from the point of impact of the bomb.
2. Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by the project staff. Further instructions will be issued concerning targets other than those listed above.
3. Dissemination of any and all information concerning the use of the weapon against Japan is reserved to the Secretary of War and the President of the United States. No communiqués on the subject or releases of information will be issued by Commanders in the field without specific prior authority. Any news stories will be sent to the War Department for special clearance.
4. The forgoing directive is issued to you by direction and with the approval of the Secretary of War and of the Chief of Staff, USA. It is desired that you personally deliver one copy of this directive to General MacArthur and one copy to Admiral Nimitz for their information.
Thos. T. Handy [signed]
Acting Chief of Staff
The effort of thousands of scientists and workers in the Manhattan Project resulted in successfully creating and testing the first atom bomb. In late July of 1945 there were only three atomic bombs in existence, and one of them was detonated at the Los Alamos test site. The two weapons that remained were transported, one by ship and one by airplane, to the Mariana island of Tinian where they would be loaded aboard bombers and launched against Japan.
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.
The responsibility for the successful delivery of the atomic bomb rested on the crew of the Enola Gay. Dutch Van Kirk used a hand-held sextant to view the stars and navigate the 2,000 mile flight for six and a half hours to the target city of Hiroshima, arriving 15 seconds later than planned. At 8:15 am the Uranium atomic bomb (Little Boy) was released at a height of 31,060 feet over a city of 250,000 people. The resulting explosion killed an estimated 90,000 people—and up to 166,000 people over the course of the next 4 months due to the effects of radiation sickness, burns and other injuries.
43 seconds after being released, the bomb detonated at 1,890 feet above ground zero. In a 2005 interview with the New York Times, Van Kirk described the moments after the explosion: “The plane jumped and made a sound like sheet metal snapping. Shortly after the second wave, we turned to where we could look out and see the cloud, where the city of Hiroshima had been. 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.”
The Beginning of the End
I am not going to argue/debate the use of nuclear weapons, nor the dangers inherent in the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction.
—Theodore Van Kirk quoted in Duty, 2000, Bob Greene
What I hope to share today is a look at how the future of civilization can come down to the actions of a handful of men and how they handled not only the challenge before them, but the weight of their involvement afterwards.
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.
The A-bomb, the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis are all subjects that ignite memories of my adolescence in the Baby Boomer Generation. As a child in South Florida during the ’50s and ’60s I was constantly aware of the Red Menace just 90 miles from our shores. Duck and Cover (my ass!) was not a survival technique that comforted me in the event of a nuclear attack. Crouched into a ball under the desk in my classroom I was always transfixed by the wall of glass windows that reached to the ceiling. I just knew that although I might survive the radiation blast, I would not survive the shards of glass hurled across the room at an ungodly speed.
My comfort came in the form of those men in our military service, the people who were on alert day and night ready to stop any threat to our country. The one thing that I did not think about was the effect that their actions might have on them.
Dutch Van Kirk remained unapologetic for his actions on August 6, 1945: “We were fighting an enemy that had a reputation for never surrendering, never accepting defeat. It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence. 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.”
In 1994 the Lioness and I attended an event at San Francisco’s Antenna Theater, housed in a warehouse in the Presidio. The performance, Enola Alone, was “…an interactive theater maze that puts each visitor into the boots of a World War II bomber pilot.”
Each member of the audience wore a Walkman device with a headset and were released into the maze in timed pairs. As we moved through the dark theater we we listened to the voices of people telling their stories of what it was like to be in a war.
The show combines elements from museum exhibits, radio theater, carnival funhouses, and audience participation to create a personal and deeply affecting experience concerning the effects of bombing.
We entered the fuselage of “bomber” and heard the flight crew going through their pre-flight check list. Walking further into the aircraft and looking out the windows we could see the perspective of the ground at varying heights—ground level, 100 feet, 300 ft, 1,000 feet—and once in the cockpit we saw the view at 30,000 feet.
There was a measurable sense of disconnect as we “rose” into the air. We could hear the preparations for the bombing mission; We felt the terror in the skies when the enemy fighter planes attacked our “squadron”; Fear only increased as we got closer to the target and saw the anti-aircraft artillery barrages opened up on the formation.
At one point we each sat in the nose seat of the aircraft and had a front row view to the flashing lights representing the exploding artillery rounds and listened to the transmission between the pilot and the bombardier as they readied/steadied the plane to drop our load of bombs.
The experience of hearing a theater troupe in my head, via the Walkman, and being in a theater set as the action happens was one of the most powerful experiences that I have had. The relationship between the terror of the artillery outside the “plane” and the horror that we were causing on the ground with “our” bombs was never more apparent. For me, the immediate terror outside the plane at 30,000 feet was more important than whatever terror I was “causing” on the populace below.
But Then Something Happened
We left the aircraft and joined a platoon of soldiers, dug in position for the night and about to be bombed. Their stories conveyed the absolute horror that comes with having no control over a situation and having nowhere to run and seek cover. Moving along the battlefield we heard the bombs falling, the cries of the injured and felt what it was like to share refuge with a pack of rats—humans are not the only victims of warfare.
Leaving the battlefield we found ourselves on a street corner in London as the Nazi Blitzkrieg rained V-2 rockets down upon the city. A Civilian Defense Marshall shouted directions to the nearest underground bomb shelter as we passed a burning Pub and the unfortunates trapped inside. Once in place we listened to the stories of the city’s residents for whom this was a nightly occurrence. Frightened, but resolute, England stood its ground and led the fight to crush the Third Reich and put an end to the horror of yet another World War.
There was one more event that had to occur to end the war and that was dropping the atomic bomb. We joined the crew of the Enola Gay as it took off at 02:45am, bound for the city of Hiroshima. Along the way we listened to various crew members recount the mission and I could feel the tension rise inside my chest. I was totally unprepared for the scene of the final act.
We entered a 20×20 foot room whose walls and floor were painted the same ashen grey color. On the floor was a replica of the city of Hiroshima after the atomic blast. Viewed by a person of average height, the devastion below was what the city would have looked like to the crew of the Enola Gay moments after the blast.
A feeling of sympathy overwhelmed me at this point. Sympathy for the victims, sympathy for the crew that caused such destruction, and perhaps even sympathy for the Devil—may we never choose this option again.
A Final Farewell
Theodore Van Kirk left the US Army in 1946 and went into the field of Chemical Engineering for the DuPont Corporation. Dutch was not one for the spotlight, but he did occasionally speak to school children after retiring to live in Marin County, CA. The video below will give you some sense of the man that helped to change the course of history.
Blue Skies, Dutch.