MARIETTA — The year was 2012 and the last living crewman of the Enola Gay — the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan — was in town to share his experiences and copies of his biography, “My True Course.”
Maj. Theodore “Dutch” VanKirk was the navigator on the Enola Gay when it dropped the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Van Kirk was awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other decorations.
Q. The night before you dropped the bomb, how did it go down? Did the commanding officer say you’re going to Hiroshima tomorrow?
A. No, he was in the same briefing as we were. We all … played poker until it was time to go. How else are you supposed to spend your time after they tell you … you’re going to drop the first atomic bomb?
Q. What went through your mind when you were told that?
A. You better not screw up the job, that’s all I can say.
Q. You’ve said the night before you had trouble sleeping?
A. You were going to go out and drop an atomic bomb that would kill over 100,000 people and you could sleep? ... The best thing to do is play poker.
Q. So you played poker to calm your nerves?
A. And to win some money, too.
Q. When you arrived above Hiroshima, could you see the city?
Q. What time was it?
A. It was 9:15 a.m. Tinian time, which is an hour ahead of Hiroshima time.
Q. So people were just waking up?
A. That’s right. Everyone accuses me of planning the mission to catch a maximum number of people in the streets. That wasn’t it at all. The reason I planned the mission the way I did was because we had no lights on the field, our return field (which was on the small island of Tinian in the vast Pacific Ocean). You know, if you get back after dark, we were just out of luck. You were in the water. I planned the mission so we would be able to drop the bomb and get home with plenty of daylight.
Q. Were you worried it would explode on your flight over from Tinian to Hiroshima?
A. Well, if it did, I was out of luck. … This was the first time that this bomb had ever been tested. We were more worried about what it was going to do to the airplane. ’Cause see, it could have blown up the airplane. We were more worried about that than anything else.
Q. Did you call your wife before you left?
A. No. What’s this calling your wife? I was on Tinian! We didn’t call our wives. … When you went overseas back during World War II, you went overseas. Period! You were like dead. You were given up for dead.
Q. How long did the bomb take to explode?
A. 43 seconds.
Q. What was it like upon detonation?
A. Utter chaos. If you can imagine being in an airplane bouncing around, held down to your seat. I was lucky, I had a seat, and I was strapped to it, and it was bolted to the floor. Otherwise, I’d have been putting a dent in the roof.
Q. The plane was rocking?
A. Rocking wasn’t the word for it. We got into the severest turbulence I had ever seen.
Q. Was the noise tremendous?
A. You couldn’t hear it. Your engines were roaring. You had full power on the engines — and wishing for more. So you couldn’t hear a thing. Someone says ‘Did you hear the bomb go off?’ Hell no, we didn’t hear the bomb go off! Nobody did, in the airplane that is.
Q. Could you see anything?
A. After we turned around to take a look at it we could, yeah.
Q. What did you see?
A. First thing we saw was a large white, mushroom-shaped cloud that was formed well above our altitude. I would guess it was up to about 50,000-plus feet already. And underneath the white cloud, all you saw was the city, what was the city of Hiroshima, all beat up. It looked like a pot of boiling oil. Black. It was dark colored and everything else, the debris and everything else, that’s what you could see.
Q. What went through your mind?
A. This war’s over.
Q. Why did you think that?
A. If somebody dropped a bomb on Washington, D.C., and you woke in the morning and saw it, and you saw that everything was gone that you had been connected with — your government, your people and everything of that type — what would you think was the sense of continuing the war? We may as well cut our losses and get the thing over with.
Q. Have you ever been plagued by doubts about the destruction of so many civilians?
A. I have never been plagued by doubts. The Japanese had to be killed before they would stop fighting. We were either going to have to invade Japan to kill them or something else like an atomic bomb was going to have to be dropped in order to kill them. We dropped that bomb on Hiroshima … Then we dropped another one on Nagasaki and the Emperor woke up and says, ‘It is futile to continue this war. My people have taken enough damage.’ He says, ‘Stop.’ Which is what we wanted. Someone with the authority to stop the fighting all over.
Q. Would you do it again?
Q. Why do you think academics continue to debate whether this was the right thing to do?
A. I’ve always said that anybody who really examines a war and everything else objectively will reach the conclusion that we did the right thing.
Q. Do you worry about terrorists using a nuclear weapon against the U.S.?
A. Absolutely. Who’s going to stop them? I’m not going to get a gun and go out there and stop them. Nobody in this room that can stop them. They will find a way to do it if they want to.
Q. Given that possibility, should the bomb have been created to begin with?
A. Yes. We are the prime example why you should never use an atomic bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were demonstrations as to what happens if you use an atomic bomb. That’s the reason one has never been used for the last umpteen years.