PITTSFIELD -- Theodore Van Kirk, the last surviving member of the crew of the Enola Gay, died July 28 at the age of 93.

For those who may be unaware of Van Kirk’s role in history, he was the navigator on the first atomic bombing run at the end of World War II.

The bomb destroyed Hiroshima, killing about 140,000 people. It probably hastened the end of the conflict.

I never met Van Kirk, but as a student of history, and specifically, that war, I knew of him.

I always believed that his immediate thoughts about that event were the most telling. Most of the obituaries have reported that his initial thought was "The war’s over." The quote was cast in the light of Van Kirk’s observation of the devastation of Hiroshima.

But in a news article in the 1950s, Van Kirk recalled saying. "The war is over. Thank God. I’m going home. I’m not going to die."

That version feels more real, although whether or not he really said that is now lost to the ages. But I think by 1945, a veteran airman like Van Kirk, who flew more than 58 missions, just wanted to go home.

Of course, another of his thoughts after seeing the bomb’s devastation was, "I’m glad it worked."

That’s because there were no guarantees that anything would actually happen. After the bomb was released that morning in 1945, Van Kirk and the rest of the crew were told the bomb would detonate about 43 seconds after it left the plane.


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They began counting "one thousand one, one thousand two," until they reached 43.

Nothing.

"Everybody in the plane concluded it was a dud," admitted Van Kirk in a 2011 interview.

Then, seconds later, an incredible flash and then a shock wave that literally caused the air to ripple. Obviously, the bomb worked.

There was another reason Van Kirk and his crew mates were relieved the bomb worked. The entire 12-man crew had been given cyanide tablets in case the bomb didn’t work and the Enola Gay was shot down. The U.S. government was taking no chances.

I’m aware, of course, of the faction of folks who believe we should not have dropped the atomic bomb. And that the Japanese, after months of relentless firebombings of their cities, were poised to surrender. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower himself made such a statement.

From my readings of a host of sources, I agree that there was a portion of the Japanese military that certainly believed that further resistance against the Allies was useless.

But there were not enough votes, in the opinion of many historical scholars, to make such a decision happen. Even after the Allies dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, more than a few Japanese hard-liners still advocated a final Armageddon-type battle in which most of the Japanese population would perish.

Which I believe is the point. Eisenhower may have been right: Our relentless firebombing may have, sooner or later, induced Japanese surrender. But at the cost of how many Japanese lives? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?

"War," said Union General William Tecumseh Sherman 80 years before, "Is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over."

"I think the use of the atomic bomb saved many lives," said Van Kirk in 2013. "And most of them were Japanese."

My thought exactly.

To reach Derek Gentile:
dgentile@berkshireeagle.com,
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On Twitter: @DerekGentile