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The last of the Enola Gay

Posted: August 1, 2014 11:04 a.m.
Updated: August 4, 2014 5:00 a.m.

There may still be about 1.4 million U.S. veterans of World War II still living, but the passing last week of Capt. Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, 93, in Stone Mountain, Ga., in many closes the story of that war.

There are still stories to be told, to be sure, by those WWII veterans still needing to tell their tales. Van Kirk, however, was part of the mission that ended the war for good: he was the navigator aboard the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb called “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. Yes, Boxcar dropped the second atomic bomb, “Fat Man” on Nagasaki three days later, but that merely drove the point home: Japan would suffer horribly if it did not surrender, and surrender it did.

Van Kirk was the last of the Enola Gay crew to pass away.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), Van Kirk lived in a Stone Mountain retirement community with none other than James Starnes -- a navigator on the U.S.S. Missouri who was on board when the Japanese officially surrendered.

“For more than a decade, the two men put on ‘dog-and-pony’ talks around metro Atlanta that ended World War II,” the AJC reported, and became fast friends.

According to its story, Van Kirk, a Pennsylvania native, joined the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor. He became a navigator after washing out as a pilot.

NBC News reported that Van Kirk was 24 years old when he, pilot Col. Paul Tibbets and the rest of the 12-man crew took off from the Northern Marianas island of Tinian to drop “Little Boy.”

I lived on nearby Saipan from 1979 to 1982, my high school years, and visited the site on Tinian from which Van Kirk, Tibbets and crew took off. Even as a young teenager -- and despite the tropical heat and humidity -- I will never forget the chill I felt standing near where the atomic bomb was loaded to be dropped on Hiroshima thousands of miles away, killing so many people.

What I don’t think I realized until reading an account of Van Kirk’s passing in The New York Times is that Hiroshima was also the site of an important army headquarters.

I truly believe the atomic bomb drops were necessary. Not because I believe the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki deserved it -- they did not; no one does. But there is no doubt that without the actions of Van Kirk and his compatriots, far, far more lives would have been lost, both Japanese and American, if we had invaded instead.

Here’s what Van Kirk told the times on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima raid about what happened after dropping the bomb:

“The plan 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.”

He also felt relieved, he told the Times; he knew the war was over or would be soon.

And Van Kirk never wavered from his belief that he and America had made the right choice.

“We were fighting an enemy that had a reputation for never surrendering, never accepting defeat,” he told the Times. “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence. Where was the mortality in the bombing of Coventry, or the bombing of Dresden, or the Bataan Death March, or the Rape Nanking, or the boming of Pearl Harbor?”

He was right, you know. War is never moral, but is, regrettably, sometimes necessary.

Van Kirk retired in 1946 as a major. For his role on Tinian and in other missions, he received the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war, Van Kirk had a long career as a DuPont executive. A check of some other accounts of his passing reveal he earned bachelor and master science degrees in chemical engineering from Bucknell University. He worked for DuPont for 35 years in technical and managerial positions in research and marketing.

It sounds like he lived a good long life following his participation in the war. He did his duty, to the credit of us all.

Japan looking for U.S. MIAs

Since World War II, Japan and America have been pretty good friends, in my opinion.

That is being underscored right now thanks to a group called Kuentai-USA, a Japanese organization that -- according to CBS News and other outlets -- is trying to find the graves of missing American WWII servicemen on Saipan, where I lived.

CBS News: “A developer plans to begin construction in the fall on a condominium near the beach where scores of Americans were killed on July 7, 1944, during Japan’s largest mass suicide attack of the war.”

The remains of at least two American servicemen were found there in 2011 and 2013, but there may be more. The Pentagon says about 20 WWII U.S. servicemen are unaccounted for on Saipan.

Kentai-USA’s founder, a journalist named Usan Kurata, said his organization “believes returning Americans’ remains to their families is the right thing to do.”

They were in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., last week combing through records. Here’s hoping they find what they need to bring these heroes home.


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