Major Theodore Van Kirk: Air force navigator who became last surviving member of crew that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima


Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk was the last surviving member of the crew that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, hastening the end of the Second World War and forcing the world into the atomic age. He flew 58 bombing missions, but it was a single mission in the Pacific that secured him a place in history.

He was 24 when he served as navigator on the "Enola Gay", the B-29 Superfortress that dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. He was teamed with the pilot, Commander Paul Tibbets, bombardier Tom Ferebee and flight engineer Wyatt Duzenbury in Tibbets' fledgling 509th Composite Bomb Group for Special Mission No 13. The mission went perfectly, Van Kirk recalled in 2005. He guided the bomber through the night sky only 15 seconds behind schedule, he said. As the 9,000lb bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" fell toward the sleeping city, he and his crewmates hoped to escape with their lives.

They didn't know whether the bomb would actually work and, if it did, whether its shockwaves would rip their plane to shreds. They counted down the 43 seconds they had been told it would take for detonation, but heard nothing. "I think everybody in the plane concluded it was a dud," said Van Kirk. "It seemed a lot longer than 43 seconds." Then came a bright flash. Then two shock waves.

The blast and its after-effects killed 140,000 in Hiroshima, leaving only one structure standing in the vicinity of the blast, according to Unesco. "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 Der 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."

Van Kirk, a major in the US Army Air Corps, said Tibbets had cyanide tablets for all crew members in case the mission didn't go according to plan. Three days after Hiroshima, a second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki, claiming another 80,000 lives. Six days after the Nagasaki bombing, Japan surrendered.

The "Enola Gay" crew 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. 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. 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 said in 2010. "I have never apologised for what we did to Hiroshima and I never will. Our mission was to end the Second World War, simple as that." He believed the bombings were necessary because they eliminated the need for an Allied land invasion that could have cost more lives: "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".

But his exploits also made him wary of war. "The whole World War II experience shows that wars don't settle anything," he said. "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. But if anyone has one, I want to have one more than my enemy."

Born in 1921, in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, Van Kirk was the son of a coalminer. 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," he recalled. "I might say I was a river rat."

VanKirk stayed on with the military for a year after the war ended then went to college, graduated in chemical engineering and signed on with DuPont, where he stayed until he retired in 1985. He later moved from California to the Atlanta area to be near his daughter.

Like many Second World War veterans, Van Kirk didn't talk much about his service until much later in his life, when he spoke to school groups, "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," his son Tom Van Kirk said. "I know he was recognised as a war hero, but we just knew him as a great father."

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 Van Kirk's military career was chronicled in a 2012 book, My True Course, by Suzanne Dietz.


Theodore VanKirk, air force navigator and chemical engineer: born Northumberland, Pennsylvania 27 February 1921; married (two daughters and two sons); died Stone Mountain, Georgia 28 July 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture