Theodore VanKirk, last survivor of Enola Gay crew, dies
ATLANTA – The last surviving member of the crew that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima has died in Georgia.
Theodore VanKirk, also known as “Dutch,” died Monday of natural causes at the retirement home where he lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia, his son Tom VanKirk said. He was 93.
VanKirk was the navigator of the Enola Gay, a B-29 Superfortress aircraft that dropped “Little Boy” – the world’s first atomic bomb – over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The bomb killed 140,000 in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki three days later. VanKirk was 24 years old at the time.
A funeral service was scheduled for VanKirk on Aug. 5 in his hometown of Northumberland, Pennsylvania. He will be buried in Northumberland next to his wife, who died in 1975. The burial will be private.
Like the bulk of The Greatest Generation, these men wanted no spotlights on themselves and rarely spoke of their exploits and conditions in WWII. That is simply how they acted and existed, as issued from the factory. Humble and quiet and efficient and patriotic.
Theodore VanKirk was a member of that crew. In his dotage, he spoke to UK media here in 2010.
But what he said deserves to be reproduced here for the sake of historical posterity:
He is now a frail old man who spends his days tending his roses. Yet 65 years ago this Friday Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk took part in a mission which changed the world forever.
Dutch was the navigator on Enola Gay, guiding the B-29 Superfortress bomber to a point 31,000ft above Hiroshima to deliver the deadliest weapon man had ever built.
More than 200,00 people were killed when the world’s first atomic bomb exploded. Yet 89-year-old Dutch, the last remaining survivor of Enola Gay’s flight crew, has never had any doubts that it was the right thing to do.
“Do I regret what we did that day? No, sir, I do not,” he says. “I have never apologised for what we did to Hiroshima and I never will. Our mission was to end the Second World War, simple as that.
“If we had not dropped that bomb, there is no way the Japanese would have surrendered. We would have had to invade the country and the death toll would have been truly unimaginable.
“They had been taught to fight to the last man and they would have fought us with sticks and stones. We did what we had to do. Not only to save American lives, but Japanese lives as well.”
VanKirk confirms it.
The Bockscar and its crew applied the second atomic weapon to Nagasaki on August 9th, via “Fat Man.”
God bless you for your service, sir.
This is a great video.
Beware: this video is 1 hour and 53 minutes long. But worth it.
An excellent insight.
But a false one. There is no one aircraft that can be all things to all and for all missions. It is a Fool’s Game to think this, as John Boyd said so many years ago. He called it “gold plating.” John Boyd was a genius, and he was correct. I would refer all of my readers to Robert Coram’s book “Boyd” for an amazing insight into an eccentric aeronautical genius who existed and fought before his time.
There is no one airframe that can please or fulfill all of the services: the USAF, the US Navy, the US Marines. It hasn’t existed in the past and it doesn’t exist now.
With a nod to the future of unmanned and highly technological aircraft, these extreme airframes may become, in and of themselves, a form of Artificial Intelligence.
June 6th, 1944: D-Day. The invasion of France on the bloody beaches of Normandy.
June 5th, 2004: the passing of Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of the United States of America.
We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue. Here, in Normandy, the rescue began. Here, the Allies stood and fought against tyranny, in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.
We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, two hundred and twenty-five Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs.
Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here, and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.
And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”
I think I know what you may be thinking right now — thinking “we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day.” Well everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren’t. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.
Lord Lovat was with him — Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, “Sorry, I’m a few minutes late,” as if he’d been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he’d just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.
There was the impossible valor of the Poles, who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold; and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.
All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore; The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland’s 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots’ Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England’s armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet,” and you, the American Rangers.
Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.
The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought — or felt in their hearts, though they couldn’t know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4:00 am. In Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying. And in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.
Something else helped the men of D-day; their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer, he told them: “Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do.” Also, that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”
These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies.
When the war was over, there were lives to be rebuilt and governments to be returned to the people. There were nations to be reborn. Above all, there was a new peace to be assured. These were huge and daunting tasks. But the Allies summoned strength from the faith, belief, loyalty, and love of those who fell here. They rebuilt a new Europe together. There was first a great reconciliation among those who had been enemies, all of whom had suffered so greatly. The United States did its part, creating the Marshall Plan to help rebuild our allies and our former enemies. The Marshall Plan led to the Atlantic alliance — a great alliance that serves to this day as our shield for freedom, for prosperity, and for peace.
In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. The Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost forty years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as forty years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose: to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.
We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent. But we try always to be prepared for peace, prepared to deter aggression, prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms, and yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation. In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.
It’s fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II. Twenty million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.
We will pray forever that someday that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it.
We’re bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We’re bound by reality. The strength of America’s allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe’s democracies. We were with you then; we’re with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.
Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”
Strengthened by their courage and heartened by their value [valor] and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.
Thank you very much, and God bless you all.
Our WWII veterans are almost entirely gone. My father, an 8th AF B-17 pilot, passed away on February 11th of 2009 at the age of 88. Where did we find such men? Ordinary, common men from every part of our nation, from the farmlands of Iowa to the cities of New York and Los Angeles? They all answered the call, willingly, courageously, unselfishly. They set their lives aside in order to do their part. Some made it back; some didn’t. Some came back in pieces.
Who will sacrifice for our nation’s future? Where will we find our future warriors?
I fear: I do not see so many. Some now ask: why would we? And considering our current VA issues, why indeed?
I still say: God bless America. The last, best hope for the entire planet.