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International relations

From the Enola Gay, a strong wish 'not to repeat the mistake'

B-29's navigator later grew concerned about North Korea, propaganda

The Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, is on exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in the U.S. state of Virginia. (Photo by Hiroshi Nakamae)

The first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima 72 years ago. The Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the weapon, had 12 crew members aboard. Theodore Van Kirk, the navigator, was the last surviving member of the crew; he died three years ago at the age of 93.

There is no one left who can talk about seeing the blast from the air.

Van Kirk supported the idea of a "world without nuclear weapons," an image conjured by then-U.S. President Barack Obama.

Yet reality is nuclear proliferation. North Korea has been rapidly developing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Japan, South Korea and much of the Western world sees the North's test firings and blasts as provocations. There is apprehension.

Justifying the A-bomb 

I had several occasions to talk to Van Kirk at his home in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, every year, in fact, from 2007 through 2013.

He had moved to Georgia from California several years before I met him. His retirement home was a nice, clean one-story abode with a porch. Photos of the B-29 and some other military memorabilia decorated its walls.

I always had the impression that Van Kirk was honest, sincere, thoughtful and logical. He spoke articulately. He never got emotional. He had a good sense of humor.

Theodore Van Kirk sits in a chair outside his home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 2013. (Photo by Hiroshi Nakamae)

The first time I met Van Kirk, I asked him if it was necessary to drop that bomb. "The atomic bomb helped end the war a lot earlier and really saved a lot of lives," he said. "If there was going to be an invasion of Japan, it would have been a bloody, bloody, bloody invasion."

In this logic, the impact of the atomic bomb prompted the Japanese government to surrender and prevented greater numbers of lives from being lost in continued massive fire bombings of cities and a U.S. invasion.

During follow-up interviews, I pointed out that some people argue that the Soviet Union's entering the war was enough to make Japan surrender. I also said some argue that the U.S. could have won a Japanese surrender by assuring that the emperor would remain. I was wondering about his thoughts on the necessity of the atomic bombings or an invasion.

"Well, that is one of the arguments you hear a lot," Van Kirk replied. "But I can't tell you whether they would have or it would have made a difference. Because, you know, it's all speculation at this point."

The same logic that dropping the bombs "saved more lives than it took" was expressed by President Harry Truman and top U.S. government officials in 1945. Van Kirk remained consistent on this point throughout our talks.

The number of deaths that ensued after the Enola Gay crew dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima remains unclear. The city government estimates that as many as 140,000 people had died from the bomb's effects by the end of 1945.

Being sorry or apologizing

"I'd say we were sorry for what had happened to the individuals involved," Van Kirk said. "We were not sorry for what happened in Japan per se. ... They should have surrendered a good six months before they ever did. They had no air force anymore. They had no navy anymore. They knew that they had no chance to win the war anymore. I can never understand why a government could be so obstinate to allow something like this to happen to their people rather than accept the terms of unconditional surrender."

To clarify the meaning of "sorry," I asked Van Kirk, "Does that mean you owe an apology to them?" He said, "I don't think so." He went on to explain, "If I'm apologizing, I'm apologizing for the role that the Japanese government played in the whole thing. I really don't feel that way."

'Don't repeat the same mistakes'

In 2010, the second to last remaining crew member of the Enola Gay died. At almost 90 years old, Van Kirk was still going out and talking about the war. I asked him if as the last remaining crew member he now felt more of an obligation to talk about what happened in the war. He answered, "No more than ever before. I still feel the obligation to educate young people about what happened. I want to do that so they don't repeat the same mistakes, repeat dropping atomic bombs. I want to educate young people as to how horrible a weapon this is, so they don't go out and try to use one."

While Van Kirk never wavered that dropping the atomic bomb "saved more lives than it took," it hit me that the phrase "dropping the atomic bomb" was somehow connected to the word "mistake" in his mind. He once said, "I wish we would not have had to drop the bomb in order to get the results that we got."

In 2013, with the words "the same mistakes" still in my mind, I asked him again why he continued going to schools to talk about the war and the atomic bombing. He stressed again that it was "to make sure we don't make the same mistake. ... The best way to keep from having it [an atomic bombing] done is to have people know what they [nuclear weapons] will do, how deadly they are."

Then I asked him, "But on August 6th of 1945 you dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. You would not call that a 'mistake,' would you?" He said, "Well, no. Not [in that] particular case." He paused. "[It was] an easier way to end the war. Now we know what they [atomic bombs] will do; we should never use them again."

He also said, "If you take the atomic bomb or invading Japan, the atomic bomb would be the lesser of the two evils." He explained that the atomic bomb was seen this way in the context of Japanese soldiers' refusal to surrender in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, which cost huge numbers of American casualties.

"If you live in Hiroshima," he said, this is "very hard for you to accept."

War crimes

Theodore Van Kirk, second from left in the back row, poses with most of the rest of the crew of the Enola Gay. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Let me allow Van Kirk to begin this section himself.

"If we had lost," he said, "I would have been tried for war crime[s]." When I asked about the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, in which Japanese leaders were tried, he replied with a rhetorical question. "Are they fair?" he asked. "They were to us. We won. If we'd have lost, I'm sure I wouldn't be here. But if I were here and I would be talking to you, I'd say, 'Hell No! They are not fair.'

"Everybody was doing what they [thought] was the right thing to do for their country at that time. And I was doing, when we dropped the atomic bomb, I was doing what I thought was the right thing for our country."

He was a Christian, a Protestant. I asked, "Do you think God will let you go to Heaven?" It was 2011. He replied, "I have no idea. I really have no idea whatsoever."

Then, with a calm voice, he added, "You do what you have to do, and you take the consequences. Well, we'll find out someday, someday. I'll find out before you do probably."

Seeing the pain in Nagasaki

Van Kirk did not like only being questioned on that single moment of his younger self's life. He repeatedly stressed that the bomb didn't change his life. He won both criticism and acclaim for dropping the bomb but said it "hasn't affected me one way or another."

He joined the Army in 1941. He completed 58 missions as a navigator aboard a B-17 bomber in Europe with Paul Tibbets, the Enola Gay's pilot, then returned to the U.S. in 1943, where he remained with the Army as an instructor.

Later, Van Kirk was called upon by Tibbets to join the 509th Composite Group, formed to deploy nuclear weapons.

Van Kirk left the service in 1946 and went on to graduate from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He would later join DuPont.

In 2012, a biography of Van Kirk was published. Two years earlier, I asked him, "A large part of the book is going to be about the atomic bomb and war, isn't it? " He said, "Large part, yes."

Then, he continued, "I did more important things than dropping the atomic bomb. To me, raising [a] nice family itself must be more important."

He repeatedly brought up his experience in Nagasaki, which the second atomic bomb hit on Aug. 9. In Spetember, he flew some scientists to the city. While there, he watched as a Japanese soldier returned home. "He arrived in Nagasaki, presumably his family has been killed. You go off to a war; you are the one that is going to be hurt. But suddenly, tables are turned. And instead of that, your family is. It must be a gut-wrenching feeling.

"I was only 24 years old and all I wanted to do was get the war over with and get out. We just wanted to stop the war, end the war, stop the killing and get out of the service, get back to college."

He also had a 1-year-old son waiting for him back home.

During our chats, Van Kirk voiced skepticism about trying to solve problems by war or use of force. He was against the U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan that the George W. Bush administration began.

When I met him in July 2011, there was still some excitement in America. Less than three months earlier, U.S. special forces had killed Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. We talked about this.

He spoke calmly. "You can't impose your will on another people or group of people by force of arms," he said. "I think they'll just get a new leader. It will make us feel better but doesn't solve the problem. Another one pops up to replace him."

He strongly supported former President Obama's initiative to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and ultimately rid the world of these arms. He worried about what North Korea would do with its nuclear weapons. He had other misgivings, too. "All I can say," he told me, "is I hope terrorists never get a hold of atomic weapons."

When I asked him what lessons we should learn from the war and the atomic bomb, he said, "Just keep it in your mind. It only takes one man to say, 'We are going to drop an atomic bomb,' and that sets everything loose. One person! That's one of the things that bother me about atomic [bomb]. It's so easy to start the war."

He said he did not want the U.S. to use nuclear weapons ever again, and he was confident the U.S. never would strike first.

I asked where this confidence came from.

He cited "the morality of the U.S. ... The public opinion in the U.S. would be so against our use of an atomic bomb under any circumstances that anybody who used it, say the president of the U.S., would be voted out of office so quick."

I pointed out that back in 1945, Americans overwhelmingly supported the use of the bomb.

"It was anti-Japanese propaganda," he said. "The Japanese were all pictured as being 'warmongers.' They always had a scowl on [their] face or a gun in [their] hand, or a knife in [their] hand. So basically people believed this propaganda."

The translation of this message inscribed on a monument In Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is: "Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil." (Photo by Hiroshi Nakamae)

As for Americans in the 21st century, he said, "I think they've matured a little bit. We have a much better educated group of people. We're not as subject to the leadership of the government by propaganda means."

But he seemed to have been of two minds on this point. "Are you going to start a propaganda campaign like Hitler had against the Jews?" he asked. "Or are you going to start a propaganda campaign like we had against the Japanese? If [the government does], a lot of people will fall for it and follow them."

Inside Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, a monument stands in memory of the victims of the atomic bomb. A well-known message is inscribed on its front panel in Japanese. The English translation can be seen on a stone plate nearby: "Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil." The subject of the sentence is "we," meaning everyone who gives "a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war."

Van Kirk never visited Hiroshima. He said he had met with some hibakusha on some occasions but never kept in touch with the victims. Certainly, his and their backgrounds differ. Yet behind his strong wish "not to repeat the mistake," he showed he had something in common with the spirit of Hiroshima -- an opposition to war and a yearning for lasting world peace.

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