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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hiroshima Remembered




We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world.? I have told the Secretary of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children ? The target will be a purely military one ? It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful ?" U.S. President Harry S. Truman wrote in his diary on July 25, 1945.


The bombing of Hiroshima that took place 55 years ago August 6 means different things to different people. For some it was a moment of glory, for many more a life-long tragedy. As J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the creators of the atomic bomb, said in 1956: "We have done the devil's work."


But for Captain Theodore "Dutch" van Kirk, the navigator of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first nuclear weapon on Aug. 6, 1945, it was a necessary evil to end World War II. Now 79, the former crew member of the Enola Gay travels across the United States lecturing on the events of Hiroshima. Nadia Poutchinian and Robert G. Kennedy III caught up with van Kirk during his recent swing through Tennessee.


Q:


Captain van Kirk, can you tell us about your missions in the U.S. Army Air Corps before you flew to Hiroshima?


A:


I joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in October 1941. I received my commission as a second lieutenant in April 1942 after completing navigation school. Beginning in July 1942 I flew with Paul Tibbets (pilot) and Tom Ferebee (bombardier). In addition to bombing runs, in October 1942, we flew General Mark Clark [Allied commander in North Africa and Italy during World War II] to a secret rendezvous with the French prior to the invasion of North Africa. Later we flew General [Dwight] Eisenhower for the same campaign. By June 1943 I had accumulated 58 combat and eight transport missions in Europe.


In October 1944, I was transferred to the 509th Composite Group at Wendover, Utah, where we trained to drop a very special bomb. From the beginning of the training we were practicing to drop the bomb first on Europe, then on Japan. Then we relocated to Tinian island in the Pacific and on the morning of Aug. 6 we took off for Hiroshima.


Q:


When dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, did you know that it was atomic?


A:


I didn't know the bomb was "atomic" before we dropped it, but some other people on the plane did know. I did know it would be very destructive and was intended to destroy a whole city. We were briefed just before our mission that day and we were shown a film of the "Trinity" test at Alamagordo, New Mexico.


I felt this was one of the unfortunate results of the war. But I was also very eager to have the chance to significantly shorten or even end the war, by weeks at least, maybe months. It is what was necessary to make the Japanese militarists stop fighting. But even that wasn't enough f the largest single air raid of the war occurred after the bombing of Nagasaki.


Q:


What was your first thought when you realized that the bomb had killed so many people?


A:


I wished it wasn't necessary, but the alternative [stretching out the war by months] was worse. Mostly, soon afterward, everybody was caught up in the euphoria of the war ending.


Q:


When the bomb exploded, what did you see?


A:


All I could see was a bright flash inside the airplane. Then I felt the double shock wave. We were flying away from the bomb as fast as possible and there was only one window, the tail gunner's, pointed backward at the bomb. He saw the shock waves spreading out to catch us.


Q:


What did you feel as the bomb exploded?


A:


We were glad to be alive immediately afterward. We understood that we might also be killed, even far away, because the uranium bomb we dropped was an untested design. It was completely different from the "Trinity" test bomb f an implosion weapon fueled with plutonium. The scientists were certain it would work, but they weren't exactly sure if 13 kilometers was a safe enough distance for the plane to get away before the bomb exploded.


Q:


What were your orders if you couldn't strike Hiroshima by visual targeting?


A:


Our crew had strict orders not to bring the live bomb back to the airbase at Tinian, so if for some reason we couldn't strike the city by visual targetting, we were supposed to drop the bomb into the sea.


Q:


If it had been up to you to decide whether or not to drop the bomb, would you have done it?


A:


Under the same circumstances, where many friends and people everywhere were dying every day, many Japanese civilians and noncombatants, prisoners of war, people dying in concentration camps? The answer is yes. The single greatest killer of World War II wasn't the atomic bomb, it was the incendiary bomb [numerous small bombs dropped in a particular pattern to start firestorms inside cities]. It killed 300,000 people in Tokyo in one night. We had three raids like that scheduled per week in the event the Japanese didn't stop fighting.


Q:


Are you a member of any charity organization that helps those who are suffering from the radiation sickness?


A:


No. I have no objection to joining one, but I've never been asked.


Q:


What was your life path after the war?


A:


After the war, I went back to college on the GI Bill [a special postwar university educational benefit for returning soldiers]. I got a degree in chemical engineering and then worked for Du Pont for 36 years. After five years of engineering, the brass moved me into marketing. It was a wonderful time to be alive, after the war. All of us went to school together in uniforms, not because we were still in the military, but because our uniforms were the only clothes many of us had.


Q:


Have you been to Japan since then?


A:


No, I have never been back. But my wife and I have hosted many foreign exchange students over the years and quite a few of them were Japanese.


Q:


Have you ever talked to Hiroshima survivors?


A:


Yes, I have, many times and in many places. Most of them have accepted the necessity of what we did in order to end the war.


Q:


Did you keep in touch with the other members of the Enola Gay crew?


A:


Oh, yes, we all stayed in touch. I will be visiting Tibbetts [commander and pilot of the Enola Gay] soon.


Q:


What is your children's and grandchildren's attitude toward your part in the bombing of Hiroshima?


A:


My children accepted it. They understood there was a war on. But my grandchildren don't understand World War II at all. Actually, I'm thankful for that and I hope they never do.


Q:


How did the explosion of the bomb affect your political views?


A:


Well, I did not become a pacifist. I'm very much anti-war, but I don't think pacifists have the right idea, or understand how to get what they want. How do you "prevent" a war?


I have a strong feeling the Bomb will never be used again against people in a strategic way. I think even terrorists might not use one. I expect I will go to my grave thinking that the Bomb will never be used again.