Last member of Enola Gay crew dies at age 93

Van kirk tibbets

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.’

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Remembering the notorious ‘Uranium Gulag’

Joachimsthal mine

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Soviet Gulag was the brutal slave labor camps located in the mountains of Czechoslovakia following World War II, where prisoners were exploited in order to provide uranium for the Soviets’ nascent atomic warfare program.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – recognizing the advantage the US had with its possession of atomic weaponry – sent the Red Army to capture one of the few areas then known to possess material that could be used in the construction of atomic bombs.

The Ore Mountains, which then marked the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, first gained fame in the late 15th century as the site of a major silver discovery, with the Bohemian town of Joachimsthal taking on special significance as a source of the metal.

Also discovered around this time was pitchblende, a radioactive, uranium-rich ore, which early miners discarded as a waste byproduct.

Only at the beginning of the 20th century was it learned that pitchblende was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Within pitchblende, a variety of uraninite, Marie Curie discovered the element radium, and until the First World War Joachimsthal pitchblende was the only known source of radium in the world.

Also found within pitchblende is uranium. Like other elements, uranium occurs in slightly differing forms known as isotopes. The most common form of uranium is U-238, which makes up more than 99 percent of natural uranium found in the Earth’s crust.

However, another uranium isotope, U-235, while it is makes up less than 1 percent of the Earth’s uranium, is important because under certain conditions it can readily be split, yielding a tremendous amount of energy.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 derived its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium-235.

In late 1945 Stalin pressured the Czechoslovak government to sign a confidential treaty that would give Moscow the rights to material from mine, according to Tom Zoellner’s outstanding 2009 work “Uranium.”

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