Longtime Novato resident Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, a navigator who guided the Enola Gay bomber over Hiroshima during World War II to drop the first nuclear bomb in the history of warfare, died Monday at an assisted living center in Stone Mountain, Ga. He was 93.
Van Kirk was the last surviving member of the Enola Gay's 12-member crew, which was responsible for dropping the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945 that killed 80,000 people and hurried the war's end eight days later. Family members said he died from age-related causes.
Military historian Leon DeLisle, of Ross, first met Van Kirk in Novato in the 1980s. He said Van Kirk was an excellent speaker who could carry a crowd and handle criticism gracefully.
"He was a very passionate man who loved to be around people and loved a good joke," said DeLisle said, president and CEO of An Airman's Story Foundation, which has chronicled Van Kirk's story. "He always wanted to share something with people."
A veteran of 58 World War II combat missions over Europe and Africa, Van Kirk had plenty of stories to share.
In 1944, he was told that he had been chosen for a top-secret bombing mission that could help end World War II. While the payload was never specified, he said the trainings at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah were super secret -- leading him to quickly ascertain what was in the works.
"It didn't take long to figure out (our mission). The base was crawling with the leading atomic physicists of the time. You had to be pretty stupid if you didn't know," he told the Independent Journal in 2000.
Boarding the stripped-down B-29 on the island of Tinian in the northern Marianas, Van Kirk and his crewmates flew some 1,700 miles to Japan. They dropped a 10,000-pound bomb code-named Little Boy that took 43 seconds to detonate, generating a burst of heat estimated at 50 million degrees. Little Boy ushered in the atomic age, destroying most of Hiroshima in a flash. A poisonous mushroom cloud rose more than 50,000 feet.
Van Kirk, who looked down at the city for a jarring moment and saw what he later likened to a pot of boiling tar, felt little emotion.
"Our greatest satisfaction was that the bomb worked, that the mission was a success. It didn't blow up the airplane, and that was satisfying, too," he told the Independent Journal. "Under exactly the same circumstances, I'd do it again. I just hope it will never be necessary."
In succeeding generations, the question of nuclear weapons was anything but simple. In 1995, anti-nuclear demonstrators poured blood and ashes over a piece of the Enola Gay on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Veterans' groups, on the other hand, complained that the display, with its graphic depictions, was too sympathetic toward Japan and made short shrift of the Americans who would have died had the war continued.
Veteran Ed Davis, of Novato, said Van Kirk had no problem explaining why he followed orders and helped drop the bomb on Hiroshima.
"He was a very easy-going guy who told it like it was," said Davis, who noted Van Kirk moved from Marin abour four or five years ago to be closer to family. "He did indeed do the job he was required to do."
Van Kirk said that without the Little Boy bomb, the war would have gone on for at least two months more and killed additional people.
"Do I regret what we did that day? No sir, I do not," he told the Sunday Mirror, a British newspaper, in 2010. "I have never apologized for what we did to Hiroshima and I never will."
Van Kirk was frequently asked whether he and the Enola Gay's other crew members experienced any physical or emotional damage from the bombing.
"We did not suffer any effects from radiation, and none of us, I will add, had any psychological effects," he told National Public Radio on the bombing's 60th anniversary in 2005. "None of us went crazy. None of us went into monasteries and everything else that a lot of people say we did."
Enlisted in '41
Born Feb. 27, 1921, in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, Van Kirk grew up on a farm. In October 1941 he enlisted as an Army aviator but washed out as a pilot. As a navigator, however, he flew many missions out of England and shuttled Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to North Africa.
After combat duty, he became a navigation instructor at various locations in the U.S. When he was teaching in New Orleans, his old friend, Paul Tibbets, who was then a lieutenant colonel, called to ask him if he'd like to be part of a secret mission. Tibbets, who remained one of Van Kirk's lifelong friends, became the Enola Gay's commander.
After their mission, Van Kirk was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors.
As a civilian, he received a degree in chemical engineering from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and spent 35 years working for the DuPont chemical company. He lived in various spots around the U.S., including the Love Canal area near Niagara Falls, according to his biographer Suzanne Simon Dietz. In California, he made his home in Novato.
DeLisle said Van Kirk lived near the Marin Country Club, often attending local events for veterans. He said Van Kirk was a talented military man, but not one to boast of his achievements or try to promote his legacy.
"He could've stayed in the Air Force and retired a general," DeLisle said.
Van Kirk didn't talk much about Hiroshima until anniversaries started becoming major media events, his son Tom said.
"He thought he did his duty," his son said. "Given the circumstances the country found itself in, with an enemy showing no desire to not continue to engage in war, with invasion imminent, he felt it was exactly the kind of thing this country should have done." In his later years, Van Kirk delivered that message to schools, veterans groups and history conclaves.
"He was intelligent, had a great sense of humor and was very gracious," said Dietz, author of the 2012 biography, "My True Course." "He wanted to educate others about the war."
Van Kirk was widowed twice. His survivors include sons Tom of Pittsburgh and Larry of Charlotte, N.C.; daughters Vicki Triplett of Atlanta and Joanne Gotelli of Sacramento; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Steve Chawkins of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.