The last surviving crew member of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan near the end of World War II, has died.
Capt. Theodore Van Kirk, who served as the navigator aboard the Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945, died Monday of natural causes at the Park Springs Retirement Community in Stone Mountain, Ga. He was 93.
Kirk, called “Dutch,” was 24 years old at the time of the famous flight, piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, in which their B-29 Superfortress bomber dropped an atomic bomb code-named “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people.
Three days later, the US would drop a second atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. On Aug. 15 the Japanese surrendered, ending the Second World War.
Van Kirk navigated the Enola Gay from Tinian in the Mariana Islands to Hiroshima, on the Japanese island of Honshu, a six-and-a-half hour flight, within a few seconds of its original estimated time of arrival.
The New York Times described the ensuing moments in its obituary of Van Kirk:
Major (Thomas) Ferebee released the bomb, known as Little Boy, and 43 seconds later, at 1,890 feet above ground zero, it exploded in a nuclear inferno, leaving tens of thousands dead or dying and turning Hiroshima into scorched devastation.
Colonel Tibbets executed a diving turn to avoid the blast effects, but the Enola Gay was buffeted by a pair of shock waves. A flash of light that Mr. Van Kirk likened to a photographer’s flashbulb engulfed the cabin.
‘The plane jumped and made a sound like sheet metal snapping,’ Mr. Van Kirk told The New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima raid. ‘Shortly after the second wave, we turned to where we could look out and see the cloud, where the city of Hiroshima had been.’
He added: ‘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.’
By the time Van Kirk began to prepare for the atomic bomb mission in late 1944, he had already flown 58 missions.
The Pennsylvania native had joined the Army Air Force Aviation Cadet Program prior to the US’s entry into the conflict and in April 1942, he received both his commission and navigator wings, and was transferred to the 97th Bomb Group, the first operational B-17 Flying Fortress unit in England.
His first assignment in Europe was as the navigator of the Red Gremlin, which also included Tibbets and Ferebee among its crew.
In November they flew Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to Gibraltar to command the North African invasion forces.
Van Kirk left the military in 1946 with the rank of major. His decorations include the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and 15 Air Medals. He would go onto earn a master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Bucknell University and spend 35 years working for DuPont.