Pilot Paul Tibbets and Van Kirk had first flown together in the European Theater, at times ferrying Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mark Clark from country to country but for the most part flying dangerous bombing runs against the Nazis. By the time they had completed more than 50 missions, their expertise (and that of the crew’s bombardier, Tom Ferebee) led to their being selected as the nucleus of the 509th Composite Bomb Group that was assembled specifically to drop the A-bomb on Japan and which spent seven months training to do so.
The B-29 they flew was identical in virtually every respect to the 668 copies of the B-29 that were assembled at the Bell Aircraft plant in Marietta during the war.
There was no guarantee the super-secret weapon would work. Nor was it assured that the plane dropping the bomb would survive the enormous blast and ensuing fireball. Indeed, Van Kirk recalled to the Marietta Daily Journal in a 2012 interview that the turbulence caused by the detonation was by far the worst he ever experienced.
The Japanese finally agreed to surrender a few days after a second bomb was detonated over Nagasaki.
After the war, Van Kirk left the military, became a chemical engineer and retired from DuPont in 1985. The Northumberland, Penn., native then moved to metro Atlanta to be near his daughter.
He wrote a memoir about his wartime experiences, “My True Course; Northumberland to Hiroshima,” and was a strong supporter of the Marietta Museum of History and its aviation wing. He was the final surviving crew member of the Enola Gay.
Many, especially leftist academics, later were quick to assail President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb and concocted all sorts of reasons why doing so was “immoral” — even though it quickly ended history’s bloodiest war and saved hundreds of thousands of lives, both U.S. and Japanese, in the process. Van Kirk, like most sober students of history, had little sympathy with such criticisms.
“Under the same circumstances — and the key words are ‘the same circumstances’ — yes, I would do it again,” he told an interviewer in 1995. “We were in a war for five years. We were fighting an enemy that had a reputation for never surrendering, never accepting defeat. It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence. … I believe that when you’re in a war, a nation must have the courage to do what it must to win the war with a minimum loss of lives.”
He later added that the aftermath of the war proved that “wars don’t settle anything. And atomic weapons don’t settle anything. I personally think there shouldn’t be any atomic bombs in the world — I’d like to see them all abolished.”
“But if anyone has one,” he added, “I want to have one more than my enemy.”
The U.S. won WWII because it had the expertise and industrial base to develop and build the bomb and the B-29, because it had elected leaders willing to make the tough decisions to use them, and because it had men with the bravery, skill and courage to deliver them — men like the late Dutch Van Kirk.