I bombed Hiroshima

I bombed Hiroshima

Enola Gay crew (incomplete) with thier B-29 bomber. They bombed Hiroshima
Enola Gay crew (incomplete) with thier B-29 bomber. They bombed Hiroshima / Źródło: Wikimedia Commons
The wave hit our plane with the force at least as strong as we had expected. We were lucky that we were not blown apart. The plane emitted such sounds as if its skin was to shatter. Being inside a bomber that is hit with such a force at the altitude of 10 kilometres is an exceptionally nasty experience – Theodore Van Kirk used to say. Late Van Kirk used to be a member of the crew that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Here is the interview with him, conducted in 2013 by Piotr Włoczyk.

PW: Before we discuss probably the most important mission in the history of aviation, I have to ask you about Polish pilots. I hear that you have very fond memories from the time you served in American 97th Bomb Group in Great Britain…

TVK: Yes, I genuinely loved it when Poles were the part of our bombers’ protection. I had pleasure to fly alongside them in numerous bomb missions against III Reich. Polish pilots deserve the credit, especially for their effectiveness, as they intercepted virtually every enemy plane. As a matter of fact I could even describe them as crazy. (laughter)

PW: Crazy?

TVK: You have to take my expression with a pinch of salt. From my perspective it seemed they did not care at all for their lives. As crazy they pounced at Luftwaffe planes.

PW: Hardly surprising.

TVK: Naturally. Polish pilots took revenge for what happened down there, on the ground, in Poland. I realise that. Event then, I fully understood where their determination came from.

PW: Do you have any distinctive memory connected with our pilots?

TVK: Yes, I do. We had once organized a party at our base and invited other pilots that we worked with, and that included Poles. At one stage several planes appeared above the airport, and they were piloted by your compatriots. They performed a special show, by flying really low above the airport apron. I swear, the gap between the tarmac and the tips of the propellers was not larger than 30 cm. To cut the story short – Poles were simply incredible. Next time, when I fight in another war, I will most certainly want to be on your side again! (laughter)

PW: Atomic mission over Hiroshima was not the only important one in your career. Even when you were still stationed in Europe, together with Paul Tibbets (who later became the captian of Enola Gay) you took part in one very important flight.

TVK: That is true. In November 1942 on board of „Red Gremlin” (B-17 bomber piloted by Paul Tibbets, where Van Kirk was the nawigator) we took general Dwight D. Eisenhower from England to Gibraltar. He was to lead the Operation „Torch”, troop landing of the Allies in Northern Africa. At the time, the presence of such a passenger did not really ruffle any feathers. We wanted to stop the war as soon as possible and that was yet another mission that brought us closer to this target.

PW: Let us move ahead by two years. It is November 1944. In the meantime you and Paul Tibbets went your own professional ways. But it is in November 1944 that you have received a strange telephone call from him.

TVK: Paul called me then with a proposition. He wanted me to become the nawigator of a special crew that he was forming. We were to be stationed in Wendover Field air base in Utah.

PW: In his memoirs, Paul Tibbets precisely describes the conversation he had had in September 1944 with one of his superiors. He was greeted with news on „Project Mantattan”. But you originally had no knowledge of such a project.

TVK: Correct, I had no idea about the details of our new mission.

PW: What exactly did you hear from Tibbets?

TVK: Paul told me, that we were to do something that either ceased the war immediately or significantly shortened it.

PW: How did you react to these words?

TVK: At the time I thought it was all idle babble. Back then you were bombarded (excuse the pun) with the news of numerous miraculous plans that were supposed to contribute to shortening of this war.

PW: Between November 1944 and June 1945 you had intensive training in preparation for dropping the bomb. What was the training like?

TVK: Many people might suppose that we worked according to some extraordinary procedures. But in fairness, the training was not that different from regular ones. The only important difference was the stress put on the manouver of escape from the danger zone. We were being trained in the bombers B-29, that were were almost „stripped naked”. They had to be as light as possible to allow us the fastest possible escape.

PW: What did you drop during this training?

TVK: We used the copies of Little Boy, that weighed exactly the same and the same shape as the atomic bomb. However, instead of the nuclear load, the bombs were packed with the conventional explosives. We used to call these copies of Little Boy – „pumpkins”.

PW: You were eventually moved from Utah to the largest air base during Second World War – at Tinian in Northern Mariana Islands. What are your memories from there?

TVK: We were treated like regular soldiers. The mission could have been a special one, but that did not mean we received any special treatment and were in any way spoiled.

PW: What was the form of care on the part of the specialists, who were involved in „Project Manhattan”?

TVK: The scientists told us about everything they were able to establish where the functioning of the bomb was concerned. For example, at the begining of 1945, they told us that we have to be at least 11 miles away from the blast to be sure that the explosion does not blow us down from the sky. Ordinarily, during the conventional bombing, after dropping the load the planes continues straight Ahead. However, during the nuclear bombing it would mean getting directly into the blast epicentre. That is why we had to swerve sharply to return safely to the base.

PW: Did you still think that dropping of the bomb that would cease the war was just the babble?

TVK: No, we already knew that our army had worked out something unique. We realised that it was a weapon powerful enough to either immediately cease the war or significantlty shorten it. The only thing we kept wondering about was if it really worked in practice.

PW: When did you officially learn that what you had been training for, was the first ever atomic mission?

TVK: I have never been officially informed about it! It was jus tour captian who was officially initiated. The rest of the crew had to create the full picture from the snippets of information we received. However, if you had at least two brain cells, then by being a member of 509th Composite Group (a unit in US Army Air Forces that was to train crews for atomic missions) one could not but realise that our load, to be dropped soon, was an atomic one. We were surrounded by numerous scientists and there were trips to Los Alamos and Washington…

PW: Can one assume that Enola Gay was then the best prepared plane in American Air Forces?

TVK: That is exactly how we perceived it and we did everything we could to have it ideally prepared for this mission. The mechanics applied themselves to make sure our flight was a failure-free one.

PW: Despite all these preparations, the command still decided to arm the bomb when airborne and not on the ground. It was because the day before your departure four B-29s crashed at the base during the attempts of the take-off.

TVK: At the time it was a true plague. Loads of flying fortresses got smashed to pieces during the failed attempts of the take-off. I could still show you the planes that remain in the ocean near the base, as they did not have sufficient power to soar safely. It was the largest danger that the crews of B-29s then faced. I would risk the statement that we lost more planes at the end of the runway at Tinian base that we did during the bombing of Japan. It is easy to imagine that the results of an accident with an armed atomic bomb would be catastrophic for the whole airbase.

PW: What was different in Enola Gay, that separated it from a standard B-29?

TVK: We „gutted” the plane from everything that was not essential for that mission – for example we took out loads of radio equipment. We also got rid of a lot of armaments, as we did not need it above Japan by the end of the war. Thanks to these actions, our B-29 was 3 tonnes lighter than the standard plane of that type. The difference in weight was to mean better performance and allow for secure achievement of flight limit projected for the mission.

PW: What were your instructions in case of a failure?

TVK: We were to drop the bomb into the ocean. Under no circumstances were we to drop it over the land. In case of any problems, a back-up plane waited for us in Iwo Jima, half-way on our route to Japan.

PW: Paul Tibbets had cyanide capsules prepared for you, should you still be captured by the enemy…

TVK: I would have said thank you and declined. I would have preferred to take my chances against the Japanese.

PW: Eventually, on 5th August 1945, you learned that you were going to drop the bomb the following day.

TVK: Yes. After the briefing we were ordered to go to sleep. But who could sleep a few hours ahead of the first ever atomic mission? Instead of sleeping, we played cards while awaiting the start. We had to leave at 2:45 am, to be on target at exactly 8:15 Japanese time. This mision was really long. All in all we flew for 12 ½ hours. During the flight I had little time to think about it all. That is because, in contrast to the other crew members, the nawigator cannot let himself rest. Directing the plane over Hiroshima was not difficult, even though it was my first mission over Japan. Generally everything went exactly the way as it had been planned earlier. We reached the target with just a 15-second delay.

PW: What did cross your mind when the bomb-aimer shouted „bomb away”?

TVK: I just thought: „Let’s hope Little Boy works”. It was the first uranium bomb, so the mission was dependent on the success of the explosion. The first bomb, dropped three weeks earlier in New Mexico, was plutonium one. The uranium equivalent had never been tested before.

PW: What did the first seconds after the drop of Little Boy look like?

TVK: Straight after the drop of the bomb, the plane soared rapidly as in one moment we lost over 4 tonnes in weight. At the same time the captain swerved sharply, performing the manoeuvre that we had tested so many times before. After the drop, every one of us counted down these 40 odd seconds till the explosion.

PW: The explosion happened 600 metres above the city.

TVK: At that moment the flash filled the cockpit, as if we were being photographed with the use of extremely powerful flashlight. Luckily we were wearing protective glasses.

PW: A few seconds after the flash came the first blast shock wave. Did the scientists preapre you well for that moment?

TVK: The wave hit our plane with the force at least as strong as we had expected. We were lucky that we were not blown apart. The plane emitted such sounds as if its skin was to shatter. Being inside a bomber that is hit with such a force at the altitude of 10 kilometres is an exceptionally nasty experience.

PW: When the danger was over, the captain turned the plane back.

TVK: That was the plan – after the shock wave was over we were to estimate the power of the explosion.

PW: The second pilot then stuttered these famous words: „Oh, my God…”. What are your memories of the Hiroshima sight after the detonation?

TVK: Down below one could see total destruction. Everything was still covered with smoke and dust. This horrific view resembled boiling tar. By the way – it is not fully true that the second pilot did say „Oh, my God”. In fact, he said something that would not be appriopriate for quoting.

PW: What did your return flight look like?

TVK: After what we had seen minutes before on the ground, we thought that war could be over even before we return to base.

PW: What awaited you on your return?

TVK: A huge fete. We were welcomed by more generals and admirals that I had collectively seen so far in my life. There were free hot dogs and veer, but I did not have any. I was too tired to think of such matters.

PW: One, then two days passed and Japan still did not surrender. What did you think of that?

TVK: At the time we thought that war would carry on (despite all this) and we would either have to invade Japanese Isles or drop far more atomic bombs.

PW: Eventually, it transpired that Fat Man that was dropped three days later over Nagasaki successfully broke Japansese resistance. Are you still fully connvinced that the use of nuclear weapon was the only way to end the war?

TVK: It was not the only way, but that was the least „expensive” one where the number of victims is concerned. Apart from the bomb we could have encircle Japanese Isles with a war blockade. But it would be ineffective. The Japanese without the blockade survived on 1000 calories a day and yet they wanted to carry on fighting. The second option was the invasion, and our command was preparing such a scenario. The invasion would mean a milion victims on both sides of the conflict. That is why the use of atomic bomb spared the lives of many people.

PW: But do you regret the fact that the drop had to happen?

TVK: Yes, I regret the fact that we had to kill thousands of people to end the war. Apart from that I generally regret the fact that we had to kill people during WW2. But that was neccessary.

PW: Could the bomb not have been dropped over the area less populated than a city?

TVK: There are no sparsely populated areas in Japan. We contemplated all possible places where the bomb could be dropped. There were no places where it could be dropped for show and as a warning. To end the Second World War, we had to carry out the explosion above the city. I would like to remind you that even before 6th August 1945, 85% of Japan was in ruins and yet the government in Tokyo insisted that the fight was to carry on. I still believe that it was a proper decsion that spared the lives of many.

PW: The elderly Americans still thank you for saving their lives?

TVK: Yes, every time they find out I was the member of Enola Gay crew, they thank me for my contribution.

PW: And they sometimes do it at uncivilised hours…

TVK: (laughter) You are right. One of my neighbours, as soon as he found out I was the member of Enola Gay crew, came to my house at dawn and started banging on my door, to to thank me as soon as he could.

PW: Could he honestly not have waited?

TVK: If you had been prisoner of war with the Japanese for almost the whole war, I am sure you would have also remembered the circumstanes that lead to your release and freedom. You surely would have reacted emotionally to the news that your neighbour may have somehow contributed to that.

PW: When you then flew with Little Boy in the bomb compartment, did you expect that the world was entering an entirely different phase?

TVK: No, at the time I did not realise that. I did not understand how the nuclear weapons would change the world. But so far one can say, that because of that era we did not have Third World War.

Major Theodore „Dutch” Van Kirk was born in 1921. He was the nawigator of B-29 Enola Gay. In 2012 he published a book in the USA that contained his recollections – „My True Course: Dutch Van Kirk Northhumberland to Hiroshima”. Theodore Van Kirk died on 28th July 2014. The interview was conducted in 2013.

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