Last Survivor of the Enola Gay Crew Dies


Under the same circumstances — and the key words are ‘the same circumstances’ — yes, I would do it again. We were in a war for five years. We were fighting an enemy that had a reputation for never surrendering, never accepting defeat. It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence. In a war, there are so many questionable things done. Where was the morality in the bombing of Coventry, or the bombing of Dresden, or the Bataan death march, or the Rape of Nanking, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor? I believe that when you’re in a war, a nation must have the courage to do what it must to win the war with a minimum loss of lives.

Theodore Van Kirk, 1995 interview

Well, the last surviving member of the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima 69 years ago, has died at 93.  Theodore Van Kirk was 24 when he served as navigator on that mission, and already a seasoned combat veteran, having flown 58 bombing missions in Europe.  He attained the rank of major in the Army Air Corps and was decorated for valor with the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and 15 Air Medals.

After the war he led a happy life with his wife and kids and earned a BS and an MS in Chemical Engineering, working for many years at DuPont.

He never had any doubts about the mission he flew:

Whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb has been debated endlessly. VanKirk told the AP he thought it was necessary because it shortened the war and eliminated the need for an Allied land invasion that could have cost more lives on both sides.

“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,” VanKirk said.

But it also 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,” he added, “I want to have one more than my enemy.”

Go here to read the rest.  May his soul rest in peace, along with the souls of all the World War II veterans of this nation who are now leaving us so swiftly.

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  1. “The whole World War II experience shows that wars don’t settle anything.”
    World War II ended the aggression of Japan and Germany. How many lives would have been lost if Germany and Japan had conquered the world and faced off against each other. I tell you Japan and Germany would have become great friends and enslaved the human race. Pontius Pilate and King Herod became great friends after crucifying Jesus.

  2. Sometimes we just have to fight.

    We are to hate evil and protect the innocent against evil.

    There will always be wars…until Christ returns and puts an end to them for good.

  3. I served as a reactor operator on a nuclear submarine in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There were not enough bunk beds on the submarine, so those of us lower in rank slept on foam mattresses in the Torpedo Room. I slept beside a Subroc thermonuclear missile. Sleeping there gave me great comfort in knowing that my submarine carried a very big hammer.
    Nuclear weapons are a regrettable necessity, and the nuclear genie will never be put back into the bottle. But I note with irony that virtually all those who oppose nuclear weapons also oppose the very thing that can consume the fuel used within such weapons, making it forever unavailable for destructive use:

  4. May he rest in peace.
    Bombs are weapons; weapons are just tools. Tools are not moral or immoral in themselves– it’s what a moral being does with them that matters.

  5. Stick with me on this:

    1 – A person should only do morally acceptable actions.
    2 – An action done for a morally-offensive reason is never justifiable. An action done for a morally-acceptable reason may be justifiable even if it has morally-objectionable secondary effects.
    3 – The above applies in times of war.
    4 – An action intended to kill a civilian population is morally unacceptable. An action intended to destroy a military target may be acceptable even if civilians are killed, if the criteria of Just War theory are met.
    5 – Hiroshima had military facilities.

    As far as I’m concerned, the above makes it possible for the bombing of Hiroshima to be morally acceptable. Here’s my problem: what about Nagasaki? It was a manufacturing center, but not a military center per se. I understand that the distinction between military and civilian can be sketchy in a totalitarian state, but I’d rather not have to invoke that. Can I justify the bombing of Nagasaki without it?

  6. I meant to add – and this is not just an afterthought – that I’m in no way judging this man or the men who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. If I were in the same situation I should only hope to be as moral and brave as they were.

  7. Pinky-
    if a man walks in, tells me he is going to kill his family with the gun, and asks to buy a gun– would I be morally innocent if I sold it to him?
    Alright, if I sell rockets, and those whose expressed goal is to eliminate to the smallest child our neighbor country come to buy, am I innocent in selling to them?
    If I am a chemist, and someone comes in for an abortion causing chemical, am I fine selling it to them?
    If you are handing the guy who is attacking weapons, then you are part of the attack.

  8. I reject the designation as “civilians” those who in Gaza are warned that a military target will be hit… and run into the line of fire, in an attempt to abuse mercy to prevent the destruction of the rocket stations used to randomly fire at a target that didn’t even attack them.
    If your world view holds that throwing yourself into defense of an attacker does not ally yourself with the attacker, then you will have a different result.

  9. My father, at that time a US 6th Army artillery captain, was scheduled along with his battalion for landing in Operation Olympic, which actually was scheduled for Nov. 1, 194. Olympic was to be a massive landing operation on the southern island of Kyushu on 3 key beaches. 42 aircraft carriers, over 20 battleships, and additional Navy craft numbering well over 400 were just some of the supporting craft. 14 US Army divisions were planned just for Olympic. 6th Army was missioned the taking of the 3 invasion beaches. Army planners thought the US would outnumber the enemy military 3-1.

    However, they did not know many facts, such as that Japan also had been storing hundreds if not thousands of bomb-laden aircraft for suicide bombing assignments. What we now know was that the Imperial Japanese Army actually had over 30 full divisions, perhaps over 600,000 men in uniform, available for a massive fight-to-the-death, knowing that if Kyushu was catastrophically horrible, the Americans would not likely want to take on a landing on Honshu, the main island (“Operation Coronet”). IJ Navy Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki wrote to the central Japanese command about this time: “Japan has 20 million citizens: it would be an honorable sacrifice for the Emperor if half of them were to offer their lives for the nation.” (cf. “The Last Kamikaze”, Edwin Hoyt, 1993)
    My father had been told to prepare all his last testimonial letters and of course his will; officers were told that US casualties alone were expected to be up to “at least half a million dead” US servicement (this in a letter to Gen. Curtis Lemay from US Army Air Force General Lauris Norstad). My father’s CO looked them in the eye and bluntly said, “Many of you guys are not coming back.”
    To his dying day, my father, a life-long Republican, thought Truman was one of the best US presidents, having made one of the toughest decisions in history, one that in effect, saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of lives.

  10. General Curtis LeMay’s saturation firebombing killed more than the nuclear bombs did. In the end, are the dead any more or less dead from a nuclear bomb or a bunch of incendiary bombs?

    Revisionists will always criticize the United States for dropping the bombs. Those bombs, as well as the USSR’s invasion of Manchuria, caused Japan to surrender. It ended World War II.

    Dutch Van Kirk has stood in judgment before God – as will we all. War is an ugly, terrible thing, but it is as Clausewitz said – an extension of politics. Politics is how man governs himself.

  11. You say firebombs killed more than nuclear (atomic) bombs did. True; but I like to remind folks that more were killed by Japanese Samuri sword than in both atomic bomb attacks.
    and Steve…it was not a tough decision for Truman. He also probably knew that if he had stopped it; and word got out; he would’ve certainly been impeached, and probably hung for treason. And, (with 20-20 hindsight), I note that his soul would’ve carried the innocent blood of many both American and Japanese.
    and, on the statement that war never settled anything…It has been stated that nothing influenced modern history more than WW2.

  12. I am happy to see that a story on the atomic bombings did not result in hand-wringing comments that would be guaranteed on some other Catholic sites. Millions of Japanese civilians would have died, in addition to tens of thousands of American soldiers, if we had to invade Japan.

    The Japanese High Command was completely willing to fight until the end until the Nagasaki bombing convinced them we had more bombs (we didn’t) and that they had no way to inflict casualties on us. Even then, the Emperor had to step in to insure the surrender took place.

    The only contemporary Catholic condemnation of the bombings I have ever seen was by then Msgr. Sheen. Nothing from the Vatican or American hierarchy.

  13. I wouldn’t interpret the phrase “war never solves anything”, as uttered by Van Kirk, too literally. I suspect that what Van Kirk really meant was that “war never solves anything permanently” — i.e. there is never going to be a war that completely wipes out all present and future threats to peace, or renders an enemy harmless for all time so that we never have to worry about that threat again. Conquering Japan, for example, didn’t “solve” the Soviet threat.

  14. Fox – Not trying to be dense here. Are you saying that Nagasaki was a legitimate target because it was a manufacturing center?

  15. One other small point: My father always had the attitude, after Olympic was cancelled and the war was ended, that he had “died and been resurrected”—because so many of him and his fellow military had resigned themselves to, as it was said of the Civil War, “this was going to be a very bloody affair.” It is one of the reasons they conducted themselves differently in the post-war peace then many other generations.

  16. At some point, it becomes reductio – were not American women working in factories building weapons also legitimate targets? The farmers growing food and those processing it into military rations? In fact, I would think Americans have less of an argument as “innocent” because we live (supposedly) in a free country and are not forced to support any particular war effort our betters deem appropriate.

  17. War never solves anything

    I guess peace doesn’t either because we eventually end up in another war.

  18. Part of the problem with Truman’s decision is that it he deliberately sought to inflict massive civilian casualties as part of the means – a large point was to “shock and awe” (to use recent terminology) by obliterating the entire city, not just military targets. Civilians were not “collateral” damage – they were the intended damage to demoralize the enemy into submission.

  19. “were not American women working in factories building weapons also legitimate targets?”
    Factories making weapons were certainly a legitimate target of war.

    “The farmers growing food and those processing it into military rations?”

    Yes, certainly as to the military rations plants.

    “because we live (supposedly) in a free country and are not forced to support any particular war effort our betters deem appropriate.”

    Uncle Sam drafted 10 million men into service in World War II, and thank God the government did. World War II was a War we had to win or go down as a people before Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We have the luxury of now endlessly debating Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Tokyo, etc, because we won that War.

  20. “Civilians were not “collateral” damage – they were the intended damage to demoralize the enemy into submission.”

    Of course, by that point in the War everyone knew what an invasion of Japan would entail in civilian casualties. 100,000 civilians died in the liberation of Manila. Between 70,000-150,000 Japanese civilians died in the taking of Okinawa, and that was with the US military taking active steps to avoid civilian casualties. In the event of an Allied invasion of the Home Islands, the Japanese planned to use all but infants in a civilian militia to attack the invaders. The blood bath that would have entailed boggles the mind. By 1945 civilian deaths in combat in Japanese held areas was just as foreseeable for military planners as the civilians deaths from the atomic bombs.

  21. Civilians were not “collateral” damage – they were the intended damage to demoralize the enemy into submission.

    If that were so, why did they warn people?

    Destroying a city is a good way to impress your enemies– and telling people so they have a chance to leave makes it rather different than, say, flying over a city at night and dropping firebombs so that maximum damage is done.
    One emphasizes the amount of damage a weapon can do; the other kills the maximum number of people.
    That the Japanese military basically conscripted the entire population on threat of death if they fled is not Truman’s responsibility.

  22. The U.S. dropped leaflets on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and 33 other cities warning civilians of air raids on August 1st, 1945.

    An excerpt from the leaflet:

    “Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or friend. In the next few days, some or all of the cities named on the reverse side will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique which they are using to prolong this useless war. But, unfortunately, bombs have no eyes.

    So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives. America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace which America will bring will free the people from the oppression of the military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan.

    You can restore peace by demanding new and good leaders who will end the war. We cannot promise that only these cities will be among those attacked but some or all of them will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately.”

  23. “the Japanese planned to use all but infants in a civilian militia to attack the invaders.”

    There is film footage of Japanese civilians wearing proto-suicide vests being trained to roll under tanks. The fighting in Japanese cities would have made the urban fighting in Europe look like a pillow fight.

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