ENOLA GAY NAVIGATOR *{5D3EA906-644C-45F4-864D-59944303F962}*
Gene Blythe  /  AP
Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, the navigator on the B29 Superfortress that dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, talks about the flight of the Enola Gay at his home in Stone Mountain, Ga., on July 18. Under cover of night, he guided the bomber nearly exactly as planned — the plane was just 15 seconds behind schedule when it dropped the bomb.
updated 8/6/2005 12:29:26 PM ET 2005-08-06T16:29:26

EDITOR’S NOTE — Sixty years after the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, time has caught up with all but three of the 12 crew members. Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk and Morris “Dick” Jeppson looked back on those pivotal moments, while pilot Paul Tibbets declined to be interviewed, saying he’s told his story enough over the years.

The military record of Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk gives only the slightest hint of his role in history: Fifty-eight missions in North Africa. One in the Pacific.

It was that single Pacific mission that forever altered the course of history and brought the world into the atomic age.

Van Kirk, then 24, was the navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped “Little Boy” — the world’s first atomic bomb — over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

It was a perfect mission, Van Kirk recalls. Under cover of night, he guided the bomber nearly exactly as planned — the plane was just 15 seconds behind schedule. The 9,000-pound bomb fell down toward the city as the Enola Gay banked away, the crew hoping to escape with their lives.

Despite decades of controversy over whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb — which left some 140,000 dead in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki three days later — Van Kirk remains convinced it was necessary because it shortened the war and relieved the Allies of having to mount a land invasion that might have cost far more lives on both sides.

Devastating but necessary
“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,” the 84-year-old said from his suburban Atlanta retirement home near the base of Stone Mountain, where a large relief memorial carved out of the bare rock depicts Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

But Van Kirk’s experience has 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, I want to have one more than my enemy.”

The pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, selected Van Kirk as his navigator because of his extensive experience in North Africa. He joined Tibbets’ fledgling 509th Composite Bomb Group — which now is the Air Force’s 509th Bomb Wing, the first B-2 Stealth bomber unit — for Special Mission No. 13. It was a secret mission that Tibbets said would end the war.

Mission: Drop 'Little Boy' and run
“I thought, ’I’ve heard that before, too,”’ Van Kirk recalled. “As it turned out, he was pretty correct.”

The mission: Fly 6½ hours in a stripped-out bomber without guns or turrets from the Allied forward operating base at Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, to Hiroshima. Drop the “Little Boy” and run for your lives.

“The mission itself was very easy — it went exactly according to plan,” Van Kirk said.

The catch: It wasn’t known whether the bomb would actually work, or if it did, whether the bomb’s shockwaves would rip the Enola Gay (named after Tibbets’ mother) to pieces.

The crew thought about this after they unloaded the weapon over Hiroshima. One thousand one, one thousand two, they counted. They got up to 43 seconds — the time they were told the bomb would detonate — and still heard nothing.

Thoughts of a dud, then a flash
“I think everybody in the plane concluded it was a dud. It seemed a lot longer than 43 seconds,” Van Kirk recalled.

Then came a bright flash. Then a shockwave. Then another shockwave.

Three days after Hiroshima, Nagasaki was bombed. Six days after that, Japan surrendered.

After the war ended, Van Kirk stayed on for a year to help the military with future atomic bomb tests. Then he went back to school, earned a degree in chemical engineering and signed on with DuPont, where he stayed until he retired in 1985. He recently moved to Georgia from California to be closer to his daughter.

Looking back, Van Kirk says he just did what all the other servicemen did during the war — help the country bring an end to it. And then he moved on.

“It’s a lot of fuss about nothing — I never expected to be around 60 years from then. It might have been important in world events, but I didn’t know it then,” he said. “The war was on — this was just the final act of the war to end the war.”

Ensuring a place in history
For years, Jeppson exchanged letters with U.S. servicemen, but did not speak publicly about his role as a crew member aboard the Enola Gay, mostly out of concern for his family.

But in recent years, Jeppson, now 83, has stepped forward to share his views of the events of 60 years ago.

“I don’t feel discomfort at this point having been on that airplane,” Jeppson said in a recent interview. “The fact that that mission either helped end the war or ended the war is a good reason for thinking it was justified.”

Back in 1945, Jeppson was a second lieutenant in the Air Force, recruited for a top-secret program that would change the world.

In those days, no one used the words “atomic bomb.” It was known simply as “gadget.” Security was so tight that every time Jeppson visited the Los Alamos National Laboratory he had to remove Air Force insignia from his uniform so people working at the New Mexico lab wouldn’t know the military was getting ready to use a nuclear weapon.

Coin toss to arm bomb
Several men trained to arm the bomb. It was the luck of a coin toss that put Jeppson on the Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945 — the only combat mission he would ever fly.

Shortly after takeoff from Tinian Island, Jeppson climbed into the aircraft’s bomb bay along with Navy Capt. William S. Parsons to begin arming the bomb. They did it in-flight because the military feared an armed bomb would be devastating in a crash during takeoff.

A few hours later, after the sun had risen over the Pacific, Jeppson climbed back into the bomb bay and changed the bomb’s plugs. It was the final sequence in arming the bomb. Moments later, Col. Paul W. Tibbets took the plane up to 30,000 feet and within an hour the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the first of two atomic bombs which helped bring an end to World War II and effectively ended the need to invade Japan.

“It’s not a proud thing. It was a devastating thing,” Jeppson said in an interview two years ago. “It’s unfortunate, but it probably saved hundreds of thousands of American lives and many more Japanese lives.”

No regrets
In a 1998 interview, Tibbets said he has never regretted his role.

“I have talked to many Japanese that said I did the right thing — of course, Americans, too — but a lot of Japanese said I saved their lives, too,” he said then.

He declined to be interviewed as the 60th anniversary approached, saying he’s told his story enough times over the years.

“I haven’t got anything else to add,” he said. “I’ve only got one story to tell.”

Tibbets, who helped train and select the other crew members, left the military as a brigadier general in 1966 after 29 years of service. He became president of a private jet service in Columbus, Ohio, and has since retired.

Now 90, Tibbets lives in a modest brick home in a well-kept neighborhood in Columbus and travels occasionally for air shows and veterans’ ceremonies.

Jeppson turned to graduate studies at University of California, Berkeley, after leaving the military. Today he lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Molly, retired after a career spent at the helm of a handful of high-tech companies and working as consultant for the Department of Energy.

It was 2003 when Jeppson felt compelled to come forward. The new Udvar-Hazy Center at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum was about to open with the Enola Gay on display. Jeppson was concerned because he learned his name, along with two others, would be absent from a list of crew members long-ago stenciled on the side of the infamous B-29 bomber by the military.

Nation threatened again
Jeppson was worried that without some addition, the importance of his role, along with that of Navy Capt. William S. Parsons and Air Force 1st Lt. Jacob Beser, would diminish. Instead of 12 men on the Enola Gay, people would think there were only nine.

At the time, Van Kirk said the mission would not have been a success without Parsons and Jeppson.

When the center opened, museum officials included a list of all 12 men as part of a display accompanying the aircraft.

Today, Jeppson said he has no regrets about being involved with the bombing and stressed the nation had been attacked. He says his wife has a bumper sticker on her car that reads “If there hadn’t been a Pearl Harbor, there wouldn’t have been a Hiroshima.”

The parallels between Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, are clear, according to Jeppson.

“We were threatened then, and we are definitely threatened now,” Jeppson said.

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