Living history comes to Matthews

World War II navigator on atomic bomb mission speaks at inaugural military museum fundraiser

by Kara Lopp

The museum presented Dutch Van Kirk with the first paver planned for the Armed Forces Museum and Archives of the Carolinas site planned for Mint Hill

When the crew of the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945 they thought it was a dud.

A test of the fusing mechanism on the uranium bomb just two days before had failed. And, in fact, the bomb itself had never been tested—only plutonium bombs, like the one that followed in Nagasaki, had been tested, Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk told an audience in Matthews Saturday, Oct. 30. VanKirk, an 89-year-old retired chemical engineer, was the Enola Gay’s navigator and is the last surviving member of the crew.

He spoke at the Levine Senior Center in Matthews during the inaugural fundraising event for the Armed Forces Museum and Archives of the Carolinas being planned for Mint Hill. The event raised about $10,000 toward building costs, Museum President Bill Dixon said.

Nancy Moore, a director for the museum, sings “God Bless America” with Van Kirk

“We all thought that bomb was a dud because it didn’t explode as fast as we thought it would,” Van Kirk said, noting the crew did not see or feel the explosion for 43 seconds.

But even at 7,000 feet in the air, the crew did not mistake its effects, he said.

“There was a bright flash of light in the airplane and then the first shock wave hit. In the airplane it sounded like pieces of sheet metal snapping,” Van Kirk said. “You would have sworn the plane wasn’t going to fly another 10 seconds.”

But fly she did. And quickly too, Van Kirk said.

Scientists, who told airmen they “thought” they would survive the blast, said the plane needed to be at least nine miles away when the bomb exploded. The plane had been stripped of all its guns, minus the tail gun, to increase speed.

“We made a 150-degree turn and ran like the dickens,” Van Kirk said. “Some people ask me ‘Does that maneuver have a name?’ And I say ‘Yeah, it’s getting the devil away from the bomb as fast as you can.’”

Van Kirk signs a copy of his book “The 509th Remembered” Saturday, Oct. 30 during a fundraiser for the museum

Joining the crew

A Pennsylvania native, Van Kirk joined the Army Air Corps in 1941, flying 58 missions. He says he “got mixed up in an atomic bomb group,” because of his good friend, and one-time commanding officer Col. Paul Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay on her atomic bomb mission. The plane is named after Tibbets’ mother.

Tibbets called Van Kirk to ask if he would train with him for the mission, saying their mutual flying friend Tom Ferebee had already agreed to join the crew.  And Tibbets, the friends soon learned, told Ferebee that Van Kirk had already agreed.

In another twist, when Van Kirk received his orders, they were dated two days before Tibbets called asking Van Kirk to volunteer.

“To the day he died, he and I argued whether I had volunteered for the job,” Van Kirk said, laughing.

The night before the bombing mission did not resemble scenes in later movies, Van Kirk said. There was no fanfare or parties, just a lot of hard work. After final preparations, the 12-man crew got their final instructions: if the bomb can’t be dropped for some reason over Hiroshima, drop it in the ocean. Don’t return to base with it on board.

Then, they were told to “get some sleep,” Van Kirk, said. But most didn’t sleep. He, Tibbets and Ferebee played poker until about 2:45 a.m. when the plane took off.

Van Kirk with Butler JROTC cadet Capt. Pamela Diaz.

‘I’d do the same thing’

Responding to audience questions Oct. 30, Van Kirk said he has no remorse for dropping the atomic bomb.  The bomb led to the end of World War II.

“I’ve often said under the same condition, I’d do the same thing,” he said.

Traveling the country to speak to students, Van Kirk said most don’t understand why the bomb was necessary.

“All they know is it caused a lot of casualties, and it did,” he said. “But if you can tell me how to win a war without casualties, let me know. I’ll be the first guy to sign up. If you were a GI over in the pacific, you thanked goodness for that atomic bomb.”

Want to know more?
Find more information about the Armed Forces Museum & Archives of the Carolinas online at

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