Theodore Van Kirk, the last surviving crew member on the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan in World War II, killing as many as 140,000 people in Hiroshima, has died. He was 93.
He died on July 28 at his home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, the New York Times reported, citing Van Kirk’s son, Thomas.
One of 12 aboard the “Enola Gay” bomber, Van Kirk was a 24-year-old navigator on the mission led by Commander Paul Tibbets on Aug. 6, 1945. Dubbed “Little Boy,” the uranium device that opened the nuclear age demolished most of the Japanese city, leaving only one structure standing in the vicinity of the blast, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“After the bomb exploded and we saw the devastation, you could only draw one conclusion: The war was over,” Van Kirk said in a 2005 interview with Germany’s Spiegel magazine. “We couldn’t make any visual observation of Hiroshima because it was all covered with smoke and dust, but you could see the energy that was released.”
Japan surrendered six days after a plutonium bomb destroyed Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
The “Enola Gay” crew, which included bombardier Col. Thomas W. Ferebee and flight engineer Wyatt E. Duzenbury, became involved in the top-secret Manhattan Project, the team led by physicist Robert Oppenheimer in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop the atomic bomb.
Van Kirk, a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps, said Tibbets had cyanide tablets for all crew members in case the mission didn’t go according to plan.
Under the codename “Silverplate,” the B-29 Superfortress aircraft was modified to carry the 10,000-pound (4,536-kilogram) weapon. “Enola Gay” took off from the Pacific island of Tinian, near Guam, and unloaded its deadly cargo at 8:15 a.m. local time.
On the advice of Oppenheimer, Tibbets was required to steer the plane at an angle of 159 degrees in either direction as fast as possible after the bomb’s release to have the best chance of survival and avoid the shockwaves from the explosion 10 miles away, according to a 2002 interview with Tibbets in the Guardian newspaper. After observing the destruction and taking photographs for several minutes, they escaped to safety.
“Do I regret what we did that day? No, sir, I do not,” Van Kirk, nicknamed “Dutch,” said in a 2010 interview with the U.K.’s Mirror newspaper. “I have never apologized for what we did to Hiroshima and I never will. Our mission was to end the Second World War, simple as that.”
Born on Feb. 27, 1921, in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, Van Kirk was the son of a coal digger. He helped his father by rowing flats of coal up and down the Susquehanna River.
“I had practically a Huckleberry Finn life type of thing,” Van Kirk said in an interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting. “I might say, I was a river rat.”
After a year at Susquehanna College, he joined the military as an aviation cadet in October 1941, according to the New York Times. Chosen by Tibbets to join his crew, Van Kirk flew bombing missions over Europe and North Africa and transported General Dwight Eisenhower to Gibraltar in 1942.
After retiring from military service in 1946, with a Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross, Van Kirk earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He then became a marketing executive at Dupont Co.
The “Enola Gay” was restored and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia, near Washington Dulles International Airport.
“If we had not dropped the bomb, there is no way the Japanese would have surrendered,” Van Kirk said. “We would have had to invade the country and the death toll would have been truly unimaginable.”
Van Kirk is survived by two sons, Thomas and Larry, as well as two daughters, Vicki Triplett and Joanne Gotelli, according to the New York Times.