Theodore "Dutch" J. Van Kirk, 84

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THEODORE (DUTCH) VAN KIRK, 84 Navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima

I joined the air force at 19. After the first summer of college, I saw the ads to be an aviation cadet, to fly and all that and thought "Gee, I'm going to be in the war anyhow." The war hadn't been declared yet, but you didn't have to be too smart to see that we were going to be in it. I decided that rather than being in the mud and on the ground I would join the Air Force. I signed up in 1940, but they didn�t take me until the late summer of 1941.

Eyewitnesses of Hiroshima

• Living Under the Cloud
The atom bombs dropped over Japan ended a terrible war and persuaded the world never to use nuclear weapons again. Why that legacy is now in peril—and what we should do about it

• Crossing the Moral Threshold
Why U.S. leaders never questioned the idea of dropping the Bomb


• Web Guide: Hiroshima, 60 Years Later
Online resources relating to the dropping of the atomic bomb

Oral Histories

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Weapon Test Officer

• Theodore "Dutch" J. Van Kirk, 84

• Frederick L. Ashworth, 93
Weaponeer on the Bockscar

• Charles "Don" Albury, 84

• The Japanese Pilot
Remembering Hiroshima

Gallery & Graphics

• Hiroshima
TIME & Life Photo Essay after the bomb

• The Nuclear World
A TIME graphic of today's nuclear states

From the TIME Archive

• Hiroshima Archive Collection
TIME's Hiroshima reporting from the aftermath of the bombing and over the past 60 years

Out of navigation school, I was sent to the 340th Bomb Squadron and the 97th Bombardment Group. The commanding officer was Colonel Paul W. Tibbets. We got on the same crew together and flew the first mission out of England in 1942 on B-17s. Tibbets at that time was our commanding officer and pilot and MajorTom Ferebee was our bombardier. The three of us pretty much flew together. I ended up with 58 missions, Tom, I think, ended up with 64. We trained 15 bombing crews with special B-29s to drop atom bombs.

We had absolutely no idea how many times we were going to have to drop the bomb—but that's the Air Force for you. You're training people for not only this particular war but also the post-military. The military jumped on the atomic bomb as the weapon of the future.

I arrived on Tinian on June 25, 1945. There were about 1700 people in the full 509th Group. We had 15 airplanes and 15 crews, and we were self-sufficient, with our own mechanics, our own medical staff and our own MPs. In essence, we were a small air force. Every one of those 1700 people there were very major contributors, from the MPs who guarded the airplane to the people who flew it.

From July 16th, when they had the explosion in New Mexico, they knew that they had a weapon that would work, or that they thought would work, and things got very interesting. We had a lot of briefings, a lot of sessions to tell us what to expect. We were told how big the explosion might be, how it might rock the airplane. Some of them told us how it would destroy the airplane.

They said that it'll probably destroy everything within a couple of hundreds of yards of the center of the blast and cause lesser damage further out. You fight a war to win. There were over 100 numbered military targets within the city of Hiroshima. It wasn't a matter of going up there and dropping it on the city and killing people. It was destroying military targets in the city of Hiroshima—the most important of which was the army headquarters charged with the defense of Japan in event of invasion. That had to be destroyed.

All this went on from July 16th. Eventually, President Truman gave the order to use the bombs and we really started getting going in earnest.

When [Colonel Paul] Tibbetts was picked to be commanding officer [in 1944], he named me group navigator. He told me, "We're going to do something that I can't tell you about right now, but if it works, it will end or significantly shorten the war." And I thought, Oh, yeah, buddy. I've heard that before.

We picked a day the weather was good. At the briefing that day, they told you who was assigned to what airplanes. We were going to drop the bomb, [Captain Charles] Sweeney was going to fly the instruments, George [Marquart] was going to fly the picture airplane, [Captain Frederick] Bock was flying one of the weather airplanes. They called us about 10 or 11 in the evening. I don't know how they expect to tell you that you're going out to drop the atom bomb and not know if it's going to work or if it's going to blow up the airplane, and then tell you to go get some sleep. I wasn't able to sleep.

Our takeoff time was 2:45 a.m. We get down to the airplane, and the Manhattan Project had it lit up with a whole bunch of lights. I said it looked like a Hollywood premiere. [Private] Dick Nelson said it looked like a supermarket opening. But there were questions, picture taking, tape interviewing and everything. We got in the plane and took off. I didn't talk about anything. The navigator was to keep the plane on course, getting the plane from Tinian to Hiroshima on time. It was 12 hr. and 15 min. total.

The Enola Gay was stripped down—a big metal tube with a lot of instruments and people in it. All the turrets, all the guns—except the tail guns—and anything we did not absolutely need, we discarded. It was about 6,000 lbs. lighter.

It was just like any other mission: some people are reading books, some are taking naps. When the bomb left the airplane, the plane jumped because you released 10,000 lbs. Immediately Paul took the airplane to a 180° turn. We lost 2,000 ft. on the turn and ran away as fast as we could. Then it exploded. All we saw in the airplane was a bright flash. Shortly after that, the first shock wave hit us, and the plane snapped all over. We looked to see what happened to the target, and we could make absolutely no visual observation because the entire city of Hiroshima was covered in black smoke and dust, debris that had been kicked up by the bomb and the blast, and a large white cloud that you've seen pictures of. I'd guess it was up to 42,000 ft. already.

When you're looking at it, you know that a tremendous amount of energy has been released. There was one thought that was uppermost on everyone's mind. Somebody said, and I thought too, "This war is over." You didn't see how anybody—even the most radical, militaristic, uncaring for their people—how anybody like that could stand up to something like this.

A shorter version of this account appears in the Aug. 1, 2005 issue of TIME Magazine

Next: Frederick L. Ashworth, 93