'We believed it was going to be something big' -- Enola Gay navigator shares his story

Dan Marsh

On Aug. 6, 1945, 12 Americans effectively ended World War II by dropping the first atomic bomb -- on Hiroshima, Japan. One of the 12, U.S. Army Air Corps Maj. (Ret.) Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, spoke to a capacity crowd at Ouachita Baptist University on Tuesday night about his experiences on that historic day.

Earlier in the day, Van Kirk, 86, attended a luncheon at First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall for World War II veterans. His visit was in conjunction with the release of the documentaries "Their Journey - A Veterans Tribute Tour" and Ken Burns' "The War." At the luncheon, Van Kirk met with local veterans Ross Brewer and Austin Freeman, who traveled to Washington, D.C., to help make "Their Journey." Clips from both documentaries were shown to the audience Tuesday night.

Dr. Bill Downs, retired OBU communications professor, introduced Van Kirk. "I was 13 when the bomb was dropped," Downs said. "We 'watched' radio back then, and that was how my family and I first heard the announcement. Dutch Van Kirk is a true American hero. He dismisses that, but we'll stick to our story."

Van Kirk gave a lively, informative, highly personal description of his experiences leading up to the Enola Gay's fateful flight. The Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the bomb, was named after the mother of the pilot, Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., commander of the 509th Composite Group. Van Kirk was the navigator.

"I know a lot of you young people out there think these things never really happened," Van Kirk said, referring to documentary scenes of concentration camp victims. "I can assure you, this did happen. If you still don't think so, I don't know where this country will go from here."

He spoke briefly about his experiences in the European Theater and in North Africa. His first missions were flying over German-occupied countries in Europe. "The Royal Air Force flew us in and met us coming out. That was the most dangerous time for them, we'd shoot at anything."

He said jokingly that he and Tibbets, while flying in North Africa, racked up the record for the most ammo expended "without hitting a darn thing." He recalled watching the American fleet "steaming through the Straits of Gibraltar" at night. "It was small compared to the invasion force at Normandy," he said, "but looking at it, you knew it was unstoppable. It was a sight to stir your soul."

Later, after returning to Monroe, La., Van Kirk was contacted by Tibbets with an invitation to join the 509th. He accepted. "We still argue about whether I volunteered," he said.

The 509th was based at Wendover Army Air Field, Utah. There, Van Kirk underwent training and met with scientists from the Manhattan Project, the group that had developed the atomic bomb. That was in June 1945.

"The scientists told us the plane would be safe nine miles from where the bomb detonated," Van Kirk said. "Some said it was farther than that, some said you couldn't get far enough away. So that's what we trained for, to get nine miles from the explosion. This was all done at high altitudes, in B-29s stripped down for altitude and speed. I am proud to say that the 509th never lost or injured a man. All our objectives were carried out safely."

Fifteen B-29s and 15 crews trained to drop the first atomic bomb. "We never used the word 'atomic,' we never used the word 'nuclear,'" Van Kirk said. "It was always 'the gimmick.' We knew everything about the bomb that we could be told. We were told it would help shorten the war. We believed it was going to be something big."

Later in June, the Enola Gay was flown to Guam, where it received a bomb bay modification, and from there to Tinian in the Mariana Islands. "We had landing fields there that were very costly to the Marines," Van Kirk said. In 1944, U.S. Marines had wrested the island away from the Japanese. The Enola Gay carried out its Hiroshima mission from that island.

In July, the first plutonium bomb had been tested in the New Mexico desert. "They told us as much about it as they could," Van Kirk said. "They sent us men and pictures to tell us what to expect. President Truman approved the use of the bomb later that month. We were going to drop the bomb as soon as the weather was OK."

Three targets were selected, including Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but one, Kyoto, was dropped due to its cultural and religious significance. Hiroshima was a priority because the 6th Army Corps of Japan had its headquarters in the center of the city. "They were charged with defending Japan against invaders," Van Kirk said. At that time, the U.S. had been planning to invade Japan by November. The purpose of the bomb was to avert American casualties in such an invasion.

"We had to drop the bomb visually, not by radar. We had to measure the force of the blast and get pictures," Van Kirk said. "We were told in our briefing that we would be dropping the first atomic bomb. Then we were told to go and get some sleep. Well, I couldn't sleep. None of us could. I know, we were all in the same poker game."

When the Enola Gay's crew dropped the bomb, "we ran like the dickens. It detonated in the air, about 1,800 feet above the ground. I saw a bright flash. The first jolt was 35 G's at 30,000 feet. At first we thought we were taking flak, but the tailgunner said no, that was a shockwave, and here comes another one. A mushroom cloud formed. We could not visually observe the city through the dust and dirt kicked up by the bomb. You knew that a tremendous amount of energy had been unleashed on the ground."

Van Kirk said the Japanese had been defeated "long before we dropped the bomb, but they didn't know when to quit. They wanted to battle us on their beaches ... long enough to get better terms of surrender than we were offering. We dropped leaflets warning people that ruin was about to rain down on them. We dropped leaflets just before Nagasaki. They still would not admit they were beaten. The people thought they were winning.”

"I have all the sympathy in the world for the survivors," Van Kirk said, recounting the story of a survivor he met who kept demanding, "Why Hiroshima?" "I finally got sort of fed up. We had to destroy the headquarters."

He said American scientists drastically underestimated the effects of radiation poisoning. "They thought it would be confined to the radius of the blast, but they were wrong. More people outside were affected with horrible illnesses."

Van Kirk said he has no idea how many American lives were saved by the atomic attacks. "The war would not have ended" otherwise, he said. "More Japanese would have died from our air raids - we were fire-bombing them daily. We could fly over the Empire anytime we wanted. They had no air force left. We never saw a plane."

He commented that many nations had atomic programs during the war, not just America. "We had a program, the British had one, the Russians had one, the Germans had one. Hitler would have had the bomb first if he'd kept all his scientists. They were driven out by his policies."

Arkadelphia Siftings Herald