CHANTILLY, Va. — They insist they were ordinary men serving their country. But when the crew members of the Enola Gay arrived on the flight line on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, they knew instantly it wasn’t an ordinary mission.
They were going to drop the atomic bomb that day — a bomb they hoped would end the war.
Williams: I read your depiction of the morning of the mission. You said it was almost surreal.
Dutch Van Kirk: I wondered what it was all about, and I felt it was about the Manhattan Project. I described it incidentally as being like a Hollywood premiere.
Dutch Van Kirk was the navigator. The gleaming B-29 is, these days, restored and housed in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum located in suburban Virginia.
Van Kirk: No one was officially telling anybody else anything about it. And if you figured it out for yourself, you better well keep it quiet.
There are only three crew members from the Enola Gay still living. Dutch was the only one well enough to travel for the 60th anniversary.
Weapons Specialist Dick Jeppson lives in Las Vegas. The pilot, Paul Tibbets, now age 90, lives in Columbus, Ohio. Tibbets named the plane after his mother.
Williams: As you look up at the list of names on the fuselage, every name is a memory.
Van Kirk: Every name is a memory, absolutely. And some of them left sooner than others.
Despite all the years and the gradual loss of all those names, when Dutch sees this plane, he’s home. He’s suddenly with his comrades again, and he remembers their mission like it was yesterday.
Van Kirk: When the bomb left the airplane, you’ve got the surge of course of releasing 9,400 pounds right away. Tibbets went into the turn 150 degrees to the right, pushed the nose down, lost about 2,000 feet to build enough speed, and we just ran like the devil trying to get away from the fireball and cloud.
The shock wave threw the massive bomber from side to side. En route home, the crew could still see the mushroom cloud from over 160 miles away.
About 70,000 people in the city of Hiroshima were killed instantly. The lingering radiation killed 70,000 more over the next five years.
But Dutch and his fellow crew members will have none of the controversy surrounding the bomb. They point out that the firebombing of Japanese cities earlier in the war killed four times as many people.
Williams: You told me the story about one photograph from the war that always kind of catches you — the Japanese soldier returning to his city that’s been destroyed. Do you have remorse for what happened? How do you deal with that in your mind?
Van Kirk: No, I do not have remorse. I pity the people who were there. I always think of it as of being — the dropping of the atom bomb was an act of war to end the war.
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