Obituary: Theodore “Dutch” VanKirk / WWII airman whose crew dropped atomic bomb on Japan

Feb. 27, 1921 - July 28, 2014


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At first, Theodore “Dutch” VanKirk and the other airmen aboard the Enola Gay feared the atomic bomb they had dropped on Japan was a dud.

But after what seemed like an interminable wait, “there was a bright flash in the air,” Mr. VanKirk recounted in a 2012 book. The B-29 rocked from the shock waves, a white mushroom cloud shot into the sky, and the devastation became clear even from the crew’s vantage point thousands of feet in the air.

“The ground was covered with thick black smoke and dust and dirt,” he said. “It looked like a pot of boiling black oil covering practically the entire city of Hiroshima.”

Mr. VanKirk, 93, a Northumberland, Pa., native and the last surviving member of the crew that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, a secret mission credited with bringing World War II to an end, died Monday in suburban Atlanta. He had experienced vascular difficulties.

Thomas VanKirk of Mt. Lebanon said his father was handpicked by the Enola Gay’s pilot, Paul Tibbets, to serve as navigator on the bombing run. The two had met and served together in England years earlier.

After the war, Mr. VanKirk received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from Bucknell University and was posted all over the country during a 35-year career with DuPont.

“Most importantly, he was an outstanding father,” Thomas VanKirk, Highmark’s chief legal officer, said.

The decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan — another B-29, the Bockscar, bombed Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima — remains controversial because of the lives lost.

However, Donald Goldstein, a military historian, former Air Force officer and retired University of Pittsburgh professor, said the bombings hastened the war’s end and spared many other lives that would have been lost during an invasion of Japan.

He said the prevailing sentiment among U.S. military personnel at the time was, “Thank God for the bomb.” Mr. Goldstein said bringing the war to a rapid close also helped to forestall Soviet geopolitical ambitions in Japan.

Thomas VanKirk said he initially learned about his father’s exploits through newspaper clippings he found during a childhood exploration of his grandmother’s attic. In 1995, father and son stood together during the unveiling of an Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

“He had no regrets about dropping the bomb. He believed it was necessary,” said Youngstown, N.Y., historian Suzanne Simon Dietz, whose book about Mr. VanKirk, “My True Course,” relies on his letters and memoirs.

In 2005, Mr. VanKirk told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I just had a job to do.” But others considered him a hero and his death a reminder of the passing of the WWII generation.

“A son of Pennsylvania, Theodore ‘Dutch’ VanKirk helped to save the world from tyranny and then returned home to live the quiet life of a citizen,” Gov. Tom Corbett said in a statement. Mr. Corbett said he and his wife, Susan, “send our heartfelt sympathies to his family and the thanks of a grateful state for his service to the cause of freedom.”

Mr. VanKirk was born Feb. 27, 1921. He graduated from Northumberland High School, briefly attended Susquehanna University and joined the Army Air Forces cadet program in fall 1941 — before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, his son said, because he knew the war was coming and wanted to choose his method of service.

Posted to Europe, he served aboard a B-17 bomber, the Red Gremlin, with Mr. Tibbets and bombardier Thomas Ferebee, who also would be part of the Enola Gay crew for the Hiroshima bombing. After nearly 60 bombing runs over Europe and a special mission ferrying Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mr. VanKirk returned to the United States and married his high school sweetheart, Mary Jane Young, who died in 1975.

In 1944, at Mr. Tibbets’ request, he joined a special group, stationed in Utah, that was preparing for use of the atomic bomb. Mr. VanKirk told his story many times over the years and, Thomas VanKirk said, was still fit enough early this summer to go on a family beach vacation.

Also surviving are another son, Larry VanKirk of Charlotte, N.C.; two daughters, Vicki Triplett of Atlanta and Joanne Gotelli of Sacramento, Calif; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at Joseph W. Epler Funeral Home, Northumberland. A service will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Northumberland. Memorials to the Wounded Warrior Project, P.O. Box 758517, Topeka, KS 66675.


Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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