This week marks two sombre anniversaries. 100 years ago saw the outbreak of World War One, and 69 years ago the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Much more eloquent people than myself have written about both these horrendous events, and I don’t intend to try to compete with any of them. When I read about people being vaporized my mind ceases to form coherent thoughts.
However, I was fascinated by a small item in recent news reports that may have escaped attention- the passing of the last surviving member of the US crew that dropped the atomic bomb. Here is how The Guardian reported his death.
Theodore Van Kirk died of natural causes at the retirement home where he lived in Georgia, his son Tom Van Kirk said. He was 93.
Van Kirk 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 6 August 1945. The bomb killed 140,000 in Hiroshima. Van Kirk was 24 years old at the time.
Tom Van Kirk said he and his siblings were very fortunate to have had such a wonderful father who remained active until the end of his life.
“I know he was recognized as a war hero but we just knew him as a great father,” he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday.
In a 2005 interview with the AP, VanKirk said his second world war experience showed that wars and atomic bombs don’t settle anything and he’d like to see the weapons 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. He later moved from California to the Atlanta area to be near his daughter.
Like many second world war 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.
VanKirk’s military career was chronicled in a 2012 book, My True Course, by Suzanne Dietz. VanKirk was energetic, very bright and had a terrific sense of humor, Dietz recalled on Tuesday.
Interviewing VanKirk for the book, she said, “was like sitting with your father at the kitchen table listening to him tell stories”.