The navigator and last surviving crew member of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, passed away on July 28, 2014. On August 6, 1945, he guided the bomber to Hiroshima, Japan, the target of the first atomic bomb to be used in combat. Van Kirk’s experience during World War II illustrated the contributions of countless Americans trained to perform highly-specialized jobs, their role in the overall outcome of the war, and one man’s part in a pivotal moment in human history.
Born in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, in February 1921, Van Kirk attended Susquehanna College before entering the U.S. Army Air Forces cadet training program in October 1941. He received his officer’s commission and navigator’s wings the following April and joined the Eighth Air Force’s 97th Bombardment Group in England. Van Kirk was the navigator aboard the 97th’s lead B-17 Flying Fortress, called the Red Gremlin and commanded by pilot Paul Tibbets with Tom Ferebee serving as bombardier. They led the group on its first strategic bombing missions over Europe and North Africa. They also performed special missions including transporting generals Mark Clark and Dwight Eisenhower to their needed locations in anticipation of the critical North African campaign during the fall of 1942. After 58 missions, Van Kirk returned to the United States in June 1943 to serve as a navigation instructor.
Van Kirk reunited with Tibbets and Ferebee in late 1944 to become the lead navigator for the 509th Composite Group, the world’s first atomic bombing force. After months of intensive training at Wendover, Utah, the 509th deployed to Tinian in the Marianas chain in the western Pacific in anticipation of attacking Imperial Japan. On August 6, 1945, Enola Gay followed the 1,500-mile route planned by Van Kirk to deliver an atomic bomb, called Little Boy, to the target city, Hiroshima. Planning the mission required the skilled use of navigational techniques and equipment ranging from the use of a sextant to a LORAN oscilloscope. Another 509th B-29 called Bockscar dropped the atomic bomb, Fat Man, on Nagasaki three days later. On August 15, a recorded radio address by Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies.
Van Kirk earned the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in World War II. After the war, Van Kirk and the 509th participated in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll under Operation Crossroads. He left the Army Air Forces shortly thereafter. Van Kirk attended Bucknell University, worked as a marketing executive for the DuPont Company, and raised a family. In his later years, Van Kirk shared his perspective on his service with the 509th as a voice for the World War II generation and its views on the use of atomic weapons.
Jeremy Kinney is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.