Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, the last living crew member of the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan at the end of World War II, died Monday at his Georgia home at the age of 93,reports The New York Times.
Van Kirk served as the navigator for a crew of 12 aboard the Enola Gay, helping to guide the aircraft to Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The city was home to 250,000 people, as well as an important army headquarters.
He had a lot on his mind the day before the mission. When their superiors advised them to get some rest after one of their last briefings, Van Kirk played poker with his crew mates instead. “How they expected to tell you you were going out and dropping the first atomic bomb and it might blow up the aeroplane and go get some sleep, is absolutely beyond me,” Van Kirk said in a video interview with the Witness to War Foundation.
The plane carried Little Boy, the nickname for the first of two atomic bombs dropped over Japan — actions which forced Japan’s surrender. The first nuclear weapon used in warfare, Little Boy weighed 9,000 pounds and detonated 1,800 feet over Hiroshima with an explosive force that equaled 20,000 tons of TNT, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Van Kirk, who also saw action in a B-17 in Europe and North Africa, described the Hiroshima mission as an easy one because the plane faced no enemy opposition and was flying in perfect weather. The bomb detonated 43 seconds after it was dropped from the Enola Gay, as the pilot turned the plane away from the blast.
Two shockwaves, measured at 3 Gs each, caught up with the plane, Van Kirk recalled. “In a B-29 at 30,000 feet it seems like a hell of a jolt,” he told the Witness to War Foundation.
After the shockwaves had passed, the B-29 turned around to examine the destruction below. But all Van Kirk could see was black smoke, dust, and a mushroom cloud that had already risen above the plane.
Van Kirk was struck with the sudden certainty that the Japanese would have to surrender.
“This war was over,” he said. “We didn’t see how the Japanese could stand up to such power and such force and everything else very long after we saw what had happened.”
After the war, Van Kirk maintained his belief in the necessity of the mission and said he’d do it again given the same circumstances. In his view, America was fighting an enemy known for never surrendering.
“Number one, there is no morality in warfare — forget it,” he told The New York Times in 1995. “Number two, when you’re fighting a war to win, you use every means at your disposal to do it.”
He elaborated on his view of the importance of the mission during a 2005 interview with Time:
You fight a war to win. There were over 100 numbered military targets within the city of Hiroshima. It wasn’t a matter of going up there and dropping it on the city and killing people. It was destroying military targets in the city of Hiroshima — the most important of which was the army headquarters charged with the defence of Japan in event of invasion. That had to be destroyed.
The Hiroshima bombing and its lingering effects killed approximately 140,000 people by the end of 1945, including 20,000 soldiers, according to the Hiroshima Day Committee. Of around 76,000 buildings in the city, 92% were destroyed by the explosion and subsequent fire.
“It’s too bad that there were so many casualties, but if you tell me how to fight a war without killing people then I’m going to be the happiest man in the world,” Van Kirk told the Witness to War Foundation in another video interview.
“In war you do fight, you kill people, and that’s the way you win a war. And that’s what we did.”
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