02 August 2014

Last Member of the Enola Gay Crew Passes Away


Theodore “Dutch” Vankirk passed away at age 93 on July 28th from natural causes in Stone Mountain, Georgia.  

Like the millions of other young men and women who answered to call to defend the United States in World War II, Vankirk served gallantly. Vankirk flew more than 60 bombing missions as the navigator for a B-29 Superfortress. He faced danger in the skies on these bombing missions, but it was one flight on a bomber called the Enola Gay that sealed his name in history. 

Vankirk was 24 when he was selected to navigate the Enola Gay over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The aircraft was apart of the 509th Composite Bomb Group flying Special Mission No. 13. As the navigator, he executed the mission flawlessly, dropping the 9,000 pound bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” on the city of sleeping Japanese. 

None of the crew knew what would happen when the bomb detonated. Many thought the plane would be destroyed from the searing heat and massive shock wave from the detonation. The crewmembers were told to count to 43, which was the expected amount of time between drop and detonation. They reached 43 seconds, but nothing happened. 

Suddenly, a blinding flash emanated over the Japanese city and two shockwaves rocked the plane. In an instant, 140,000 Japanese died and thousands more were displaced.  

Vankirk understood the damage inflicted by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but felt that there would have been many more American deaths had the Japanese not surrendered days later. An American invasion of mainland Japan would have been one of the most dangerous and difficult operations ever undertaken by the military.  

Vankirk finished his career in the Army Air Force as a major, with several commendations, including a Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross. He received a Bachelor and Master of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from Bucknell University and spent his career working at Dupont. 

Vankirk’s three children remembered him first and foremost as a phenomenal father but also as a war hero. He refrained from speaking about his service until he was much older, and shared his story with school groups. Theodore Vankirk was a shining example of a generation that defended America’s freedom and contributed to the growth of a nation following the war.   

World War II fundamentally changed America’s place in the world and the generation who fought in it are to be remembered. What is truly sad is that many of their generation are passing away. It is important to keep the stories and accomplishments of those who fought alive and well, even after those who lived them are gone.

Does Vankirk’s passing give you new perspective on our military history? What instances make you think of what service members have accomplished in America’s history?

Weigh in on the discussion here and connect within the military community.

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