Navigator on the Enola Gay visits Dobbins

Mr. Van Kirk signed autographs for 700th Airlift Squadron aircrew members when he visited the base in April.  Reminiscing about his experience as a navigator during World War II, he said aircrews in his day couldn't rely on instruments to navigate.    Rather, navigators had to use visual recognition. "We had to drop the atomic bomb visually.  We were told if we couldn't drop it we were not to bring it back.  They told us to drop it out into the ocean."

Mr. Van Kirk signed autographs for 700th Airlift Squadron aircrew members when he visited the base in April. Reminiscing about his experience as a navigator during World War II, he said aircrews in his day couldn't rely on instruments to navigate. Rather, navigators had to use visual recognition. "We had to drop the atomic bomb visually. We were told if we couldn't drop it we were not to bring it back. They told us to drop it out into the ocean."

DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. -- Members of the 700th Airlift Squadron got a unique opportunity to hear a first hand account of what it was like to be the navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 “Superfortress” that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, when Maj. (Ret.) Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk visited the squadron in April. 

Now a resident of Stone Mountain, Ga., Mr. Van Kirk was on Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean in 1945 preparing to navigate the Enola Gay over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima towards Hiroshima. He had little more than four years experience flying combat missions as a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Corps. In that short time he had already successfully served on 58 combat missions in the European theater flying B-17s. He then secretly deployed to Wendover, Utah to help train 15 bombing crews with special B-29s to drop atom bombs. 

According to Mr. Van Kirk, he and the rest of the Enola Gay’s 12-man crew — including commanding officer and pilot Col. Paul Tibbets and bombardier Maj. Tom Ferebee — were unprepared for the critical top secret mission they faced compared to the degree of training aircrews receive today. 

He drew a few laughs from his audience when he told them aircrews sometimes used barrels dropped into the Gulf of Mexico for target practice. 

He said he couldn’t rely on instruments to navigate the route to Hiroshima. Navigators in his day relied on visual recognition during the day and stars at night to find their way.
“Back in those days you couldn’t just push a button,” Mr. Van Kirk said. “You had to know how to navigate.” 

Aided by good weather, the crew of the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb only 15 seconds later than scheduled. Mr. Van Kirk said people were impressed with the crew’s precision but for him, it was like any other mission. 

Seconds after the bomb was dropped, the Enola Gay, which had been stripped down prior to flight to reduce weight, shook from the effects of the explosion. Mr. Van Kirk said the crew couldn’t see what happened on the ground but they were relieved the bomb didn’t blow up the plane. “We didn’t know if it would work,” he said. “We were guinea pigs.” 

Among the attendees who keenly listened to Mr. Van Kirk was Maj. Todd Copley, a navigator and assistant operations officer in the 700th AS. Major Copley contacted Mr. Van Kirk to invite him to visit Dobbins Air Reserve Base after reading an article about the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The article stated that Mr. Van Kirk was a local resident.
Major Copley searched online, found Mr. Van Kirk’s email address, and invited him to come to Dobbins. To his surprise, Mr. Van Kirk quickly agreed. 

“First, I couldn’t believe I found him,” Major Copley said. “Second, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get him to come here. He is a significant part of history. He’s up there in military history with Chuck Yeager. It’s fortunate he’s close by. Hopefully, we can adopt him so the squadron can help him out if he needs it. We want him to know we’re here for him.” 

During his visit to Dobbins, Mr. Van Kirk toured Lockheed Martin’s plant, flew an F-22 Raptor simulator and autographed photos for anyone who asked. 

Maj. Ted Anderson, a pilot in the 700th AS, was awed by Mr. Van Kirk’s story.
“I’m always impressed to meet any one who’s fought in World Ward II,” Major Anderson said. “We are a training unit. It was interesting to hear what he and the rest of the Enola Gay’s crew were put through and considering the amount of training they got. Now we do an incredible amount of training for missions that aren’t nearly as dangerous.” 

To show their appreciation for Mr. Van Kirk’s visit, Major Copley said the squadron presented him with a photo of a C130-H2 flying past Stone Mountain, and a bottle of wine bearing the squadron’s insignia. 

“For them to put themselves in harms way like that was incredible,” Major Anderson said. “Those guys were innovators in their day.”