ATLANTA – The last surviving member of the U.S. crew that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, hastening the end of World War II and moving the world into the atomic age, has died at age 93.
Theodore VanKirk died Monday of natural causes at the retirement home where he lived in Georgia, his son Tom VanKirk said.
VanKirk flew nearly 60 bombing missions, but it was a single mission in the Pacific that secured him a place in history. He was 24 years old when he served as navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb deployed in wartime over the city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
He was teamed with pilot Paul Tibbets and bombardier Tom Ferebee for Special Mission No. 13.
The mission went perfectly, VanKirk said in a 2005 interview. He guided the bomber through the night sky, just 15 seconds behind schedule, he said. As the 9,000-pound (4,080-kg) bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” fell toward the sleeping city, he and his crew mates hoped to escape with their lives.
They didn’t know whether the bomb would actually work and, if it did, whether its shock waves would rip their plane to shreds. They counted — one thousand one, one thousand two — reaching the 43 seconds they’d been told it would take for detonation and heard nothing.
“I think everybody in the plane concluded it was a dud. It seemed a lot longer than 43 seconds,” VanKirk recalled.
Then came a bright flash. Then a shock wave. Then another shock wave.
The blast and its aftereffects killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima.
Three days after Hiroshima, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The blast and its aftermath claimed 80,000 lives. Six days after the Nagasaki bombing, Japan surrendered.
Whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb has been debated ever since. VanKirk said he thought it was necessary because it shortened the war and eliminated the need for an Allied land invasion that could have cost more lives on both sides.
“I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run. There were a lot of lives saved. Most of the lives saved were Japanese,” VanKirk said.
But it also made him wary of war.
“The whole World War II experience shows that wars don’t settle anything. And atomic weapons don’t settle anything,” he said. “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.”
VanKirk stayed on with the military for a year after the war ended. Then he went to school, earned degrees in chemical engineering and signed on with DuPont, where he stayed until he retired in 1985.
Like many World War II veterans, VanKirk didn’t talk much about his service until much later in his life when he spoke to school groups, his son said.
“I didn’t even find out that he was on that mission until I was 10 years old and read some old news clippings in my grandmother’s attic,” Tom VanKirk said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“I know he was recognized as a war hero, but we just knew him as a great father,” Tom VanKirk said.