The final Enola Gay crewman died on Monday of natural causes at the age of 93. The Enola Gay was a U.S. B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb in World War II over Hiroshima, Japan. Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was the navigator on that plane.
The single bomb blast killed about 140,000 people and helped end World War II, pushing the world into the nuclear era at the same time. CNN reports that Van Kirk’s death means there are no surviving members left of the Enola Gay’s crew who, by following orders, became an integral part in the ongoing debate over nuclear weapons.
Van Kirk flew dozens of missions for the U.S. military in Europe and North Africa, but history remembers him and others aboard the Enola Gay for their actions the morning of August 6, 1945. By then, the navigator flew 15 missions out of England and about 10 more out of North Africa.
He returned the United States with new orders and trained “primarily to make the rapid turn and running away from the bomb.” Van Kirk recalled decades later to CNN:
“You didn’t see anything except a bright flash and the airplane. You saw a white cloud hanging over the city. You saw the — underneath the could the entire city was just entirely covered with smoke and dust, it looked like a pot of boiling water.”
Three days after the Enola Gay crew unleashed the bomb called “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 80,000 people.
MSN News notes that the use of the atomic bomb has been debated endlessly ever since. Van Kirk stated in a 2005 interview that he still supported the use of the bomb, saying, “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.”
Still, the Enola Gay navigator conceded that his experience in World War II showed him “that wars don’t settle anything.” He added, “And atomic weapons don’t settle anything. I personally think there shouldn’t be any atomic bombs in the world — I’d like to see them all abolished.”
Theodore Van Kirk was teamed with pilot Paul Tibbets and bombardier Tom Ferebee for the mission aboard the B-29 Superfortress. Like many World War II veterans, Van Kirk didn’t speak about his experiences until much later in his life.
His son, Tom Van Kirk, explained, “I didn’t even find out that he was on that mission until I was 10 years old and read some old news clippings in my grandmother’s attic.”
While the last crew member from the Enola Gay has passed away, the mission and its consequences will live on in debate and memory for many more generations.
[Image via The Mirror]