On Dec. 7, 1941, the day Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Theodore Dutch Van Kirk was a young aviation cadet training for action in Missouri.
He found plenty of it as a captain and navigator on bombing missions. Van Kirk also helped bring an end to the war. On Aug. 6, 1945, he guided the Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress toward the Japanese city of Hiroshima to drop the first atomic bomb.
At 92, Van Kirk is the last surviving member of that historic crew. On Saturday, he shared wartime memories during a Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day event at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte.
As part of the program, visitors inspected a photo taken by a Japanese pilot of the USS West Virginia under attack at Pearl Harbor. Museum President Shawn Dorsch bought the original print years ago in Tokyo.
The Pearl Harbor image, along with the presence of the famous Enola Gay navigator, represented the beginning and end of a devastating world conflict.
The photo is stunning. It captures the moment, Dorsch said. And Dutch Van Kirk connects you to the human story. These two are bookends for whats probably one of the most transformative events in human history.
Before Van Kirk spoke at the Saturday program, he met with eight Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students who were winners in a contest sponsored by the aviation museum. The focus was history and STEM which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
Students at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology created lesson plans and eighth-graders at Ridge Road Middle School wrote essays.
Hes funny and interesting, said NatiLya Fletcher, 13, an eighth-grader at Ridge Road Middle. Meeting him was an honor.
Sam Atwell, 15, a freshman at Berry, called the session with Van Kirk a great experiece.
Im in love with history and aviation, he said. This has been pretty cool.
A bright flash
A native of Northumberland, Pa., Van Kirk lives in Stone Mountain, Ga. Before retiring in 1985 as a district manager with Dupont, he seldom spoke about his wartime experiences; but afterward he began giving talks around the country, often attending air shows with his friends, Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbetts and the planes bombardier, Tom Ferebee of Mocksville.
Today, Van Kirk isnt making as many talks, limiting most stops to question-and-answer sessions and signing copies of his biography, My True Course: Dutch Van Kirk Northumberland to Hiroshima. He was recently interviewed by award-winning British filmmaker Leslie Woodhead, who is working on a documentary to tie in with the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing in 2015.
Its a story hed told countless times often to young people.
The first thing they want to know is, Were you scared? Van Kirk said. And I tell them, Why, sure I was.
Aug. 6, 1945, remains clear in his mind.
Van Kirk remembers the Enola Gays take-off from the South Pacific island of Tinian at 2:45 a.m. after a sleepless night.
At daybreak, I never saw such a beautiful sunrise in my life, he said. It was a beautiful day.
Flying at 10,000 feet, he could see the broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean. It was a peaceful scene below, but there was an air of tension in the plane because the crew didnt know whether the bomb would work.
Six hours into the flight the Enola Gay approached Hiroshima.
Van Kirk remembers a bright flash and tremendous concussion that rocked the plane.
We did a 180-degree turn and ran away from more shock waves, he said. Then we turned around to see the damage.
What he saw was a billowing mushroom cloud. It could be seen from 167 miles away. Van Kirk sees it still.
Another question interviewers always ask is whether Van Kirk had any remorse for his role in a bombing that claimed the lives of approximately 150,000 Japanese.
I tell them not under the same circumstances, he said. A lot died on Hiroshima, but we saved more lives.
A U.S. invasion of Japan would have been costly for Americans and Japanese, he said.
Van Kirk is a resident of an independent living complex where many other World War II veterans live. His neighbor was a prisoner of war captured on Corregidor Island in the Philippines. All have vivid war stories to tell, but they dont spend much time on that subject.
We just shoot the breeze, he said.
On a recent visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum where the Enola Gay is on display, museum officials asked Van Kirk whether he wanted to get in the plane. He declined.
I have too many memories of the guys I flew with, he said.
When he talks to young people, Van Kirk tries to pass along a few words of wisdom.
I tell them, Dont get involved in another war, he said. Im a confirmed peacenik. I saw the first atomic bomb go off. I dont want to see another.