The last surviving crew member of the Enola Gay, the U.S. bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan in 1945, hastening the end of World War II and moving the world into the atomic age, has died at the age of 93.
Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk died of natural causes on Monday at a retirement community in the U.S. state of Georgia, his son Tom Van Kirk said.
Van Kirk navigated the flight that dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The bomb instantly killed about 78,000 people. By the end of 1945, the number of dead had reached about 140,000 out of an estimated population of 350,000.
Three days later, the United States dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed "Fat Man" on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, bringing World War II to an end.
The Pennsylvania-born Van Kirk flew missions in Europe during the war and visited Nagasaki in the aftermath of the atomic blast there. He studied chemical engineering after the war and became an executive with DuPont.
He said the Hiroshima mission was relatively easy, with no anti-aircraft fire coming from the ground. The big worry was whether the plane would blow up after the bomb detonated, he told Georgia Public Broadcasting.
He said that 43 seconds after the bomb was dropped, he saw a flash from the blast. A shock wave then came and shook the aircraft.
Whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb has been debated ever since. Van Kirk told The Associated Press news agency that he thought it was necessary because it shortened the war and eliminated the need for an Allied land invasion that could have cost more lives on both sides.
"I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run. There were a lot of lives saved. Most of the lives saved were Japanese,'' Van Kirk said.
But it also made him wary of war.
"The whole World War II experience shows that wars don't settle anything. And atomic weapons don't settle anything," he said. "I personally think there shouldn't be any atomic bombs in the world, I'd like to see them all abolished."
Van Kirk stayed on with the military for a year after the war ended. Then he went to school, earned degrees in chemical engineering and signed on with DuPont, where he stayed until he retired in 1985.
Like many World War II veterans, he did not talk much about his service, until much later in his life when he spoke to school groups, his son said.
"I didn't even find out that he was on that mission until I was 10 years old and read some old news clippings in my grandmother's attic,'' Tom Van Kirk said.
"I know he was recognized as a war hero, but we just knew him as a great father,'' he said.