by Major Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, Navigator of the Enola Gay

Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. He was soon assigned to the 97th Bomb Group, the first operational B-17 Flying Fortress unit in England, where he served as navigator aboard the Red Gremlin along with pilot Paul Tibbets and bombardier Tom Ferebee. While serving in Europe, the crew of the Red Gremlin was given a number of important missions, including transporting Generals Mark Clark and Dwight D. Eisenhower. On August 6, 1945, Van Kirk, Tibbets, and Ferebee, now aboard a B-29 Superfortress called the Enola Gay, took off from Tinian for mainland Japan. Six and one-half hours later, they deployed the first atomic bomb in history over the city of Hiroshima. Van Kirk would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star, and 15 Air Medals for his service.

There are a lot of myths that have grown up about the Enola Gay and about the dropping of the atomic bomb. I am going to puncture a few of them right now. One of them is that everything was about the Enola Gay, and only the Enola Gay. The Enola Gay was not the only thing we had in our arsenal. We had 15 bombing crews organized and trained to drop atomic weapons. In all, the 509th Composite Group had about 1,800 people total, all working to prepare for the deployment of the atomic bomb. We couldn’t send our planes out to any other place to get operated on, so we needed crews who could perform maintenance to be stationed with us. This was primarily because of the secrecy of the project. If you looked at our airplanes, you knew that we were going to be doing something different. You look at the bomb bays, and there is only one hook up there. These planes were not going to go out and drop huge numbers of bombs along with the rest of the 20th Air Force. They had one purpose, for one mission.

Now, on to our training. When we arrived at our training site in Wendover, Utah, we were called together to meet with some of the scientists working on the project. One of the scientists said to us, “We think the airplane will be ok if you are eight miles away when the bomb explodes. We think.” I remember looking at the guy and asking if he could be a little more definite than that! He replied that he didn’t know. Some scientists believed that the bomb would start a chain reaction that would blow up the whole universe while some claimed that the bomb wouldn’t do anything at all. We were not sure what to expect. That was our starting point.

To carry the bomb, we used stripped-down and modified B-29s. All of the extra weight that could possibly be removed was taken from the plane. Special engines were added, along with modified bomb bay doors. These were the best airplanes around at the time. Today, you can cruise around the world at 40,000 feet and think nothing of it. But back then, it wasn’t so easy. The stripped-down planes were necessary to achieve the altitude and speed that would be needed to get away from the exploding bomb. There was absolutely no concern about the Japanese defenses at that time, so extra weaponry and defenses were useless. The key was to get away from the bomb as quickly as possible.

That brings up the second point. Keep in mind (and I am going to address my remarks to the young people in attendance), that the Japanese were a defeated nation long before we ever dropped the atomic bomb. If anybody ever tells you that the atomic bomb won World War II, you can tell them that they are full of malarkey. It did not. Eighty-five percent of the Japanese industrial capacity was burned down before we ever dropped the atomic bomb. Any reasonable people would have given up and accepted the terms of unconditional surrender before we ever dropped the atomic bomb. The Japanese government and military of that day were not reasonable in any sense of the word. It took the two atomic weapons and the deaths of about 200,000 people to convince them that they really were a defeated nation, and that they should accept the terms of unconditional surrender.