Last Crewman of U.S. Plane that Dropped First Atomic Bomb Is Dead at 93

The last surviving member of the crew that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima has died.

Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was 93.

Van Kirk was a native of Northumberland. He most recently visited his hometown in September 2012 where he signed copies of his book, “My True Course: Dutch Van Kirk Northumberland to Hiroshima.”

Nearly 69 years ago, Van Kirk navigated a U.S. B-29 Superfortress called the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, Japan, on a sunny August day. Once over its target, the Enola Gay unloaded the first atomic bomb dropped in war.

A single bomb blast killed some 140,000 people and helped end World War II — and pushed the world suddenly into the nuclear era.

On Monday, Van Kirk died of natural causes at the Park Springs retirement community in Stone Mountain, Georgia, according to his eldest daughter Vicki Triplett.

His death means there are now no surviving members of the Enola Gay’s crew who, by doing their jobs, became an early and integral part in the ongoing narrative over nuclear weapons.

While in the U.S. military, Van Kirk flew dozens of missions in Europe and North Africa. Yet the history books will largely remember him and others aboard that B-29 for the morning of August 6, 1945.

By then, Van Kirk had flown about 15 missions out of England and about 10 more out of North Africa. He then returned to the United States with new orders, training “primarily to make the rapid turn and running away from the bomb,” Van Kirk recalled decades later to CNN.

They dropped the bomb dubbed “Little Boy” around 8:15 a.m.

“You didn’t see anything except a bright flash and the airplane,” Van Kirk recalled. “You saw a white cloud hanging over the city. You saw the — underneath the cloud the entire city was just entirely covered with smoke and dust, and it looked like a pot of boiling oil down there.”

His first thought when the bomb fell was “‘God, I’m glad it worked … Number two, the thoughts were, ‘This war is over.’ And that was good. That was good.'”

Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered soon after that, ending the bloody war in the Pacific and, in so doing, preventing a U.S. land invasion.

It also set the stage for what would become known as the Cold War — a nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and United States that would go on for decades — as well as concerns about developing nuclear weaponry that persist in places like North Korea and Iran to this day.

Tom Van Kirk told CNN on Tuesday that his father “felt no regrets about” the Hiroshima mission.

At the same time, he said “Dutch” Van Kirk’s life was much more than that.

After the war, Van Kirk left the military, got his master’s degree in chemical engineering at Bucknell University, then had a long career working for DuPont. He retired in 1985 — a decade after his wife’s death — and remained active, eventually settling in Georgia near one of his daughters.

He will be buried in Northumberland alongside his wife, Tom Van Kirk said. Together, the couple had four children, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

“We treasure the fact that we had my dad for 93 and a half years,” said Tom Van Kirk. “He was a great father.”

A viewing will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Joseph W. Epler Funeral Home, 210 King Street in Northumberland. The funeral will be conducted at 10 a.m. Tuesday in St. John’s Lutheran Church, 300 Queen Street in Northumberland, according to an obituary in The Daily Item.

8 comments

  • Fred

    The invasion threat was upon us.We acted as we should. They were brave men and soldiers.
    May God bless him and his family.

  • Johnny Rhindhardt

    Why are we celebrating violence towards other humans? War and bombings are horrible, there is no such thing as a war hero. No one should be bombing or oppressing anyone.

    • crackers81

      Because Americans hold a duplicitous view of themselves. They will condemn an attack on civilian targets such as occurred on 9/11 which killed 3000 innocents as a cowardly act of terrorism. But then they are pleased with their own attack on civilian targets which killed hundreds of thousands, probably nearing a million people when radiation illnesses are factored in, as heroism. It’s mindless flag waving and utter lack of self awareness.

      “Dutch” was a party to the largest act of state sponsored terrorism in the history of the world. He incinerated school children for a political agenda. If that is heroism then so was 9/11.

  • JP

    Sympathies to the family, and the loss of a good man from one of the greatest generations of U.S. History.

      • crackers81

        May they forgive us, though our foolish nation seems incapable of seeing their nationalism is exactly the same force that gave Hitler his power in the 30’s. I am not too proud to acknowledge the foolishness of my grandparents, nor to bend on a knee in respect for the children who were murdered that day.

        Bark all you want about your misplaced nationalism; history will judge you accordingly. That is small consolation to the dead, but it is all I can give to them.

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