On Dec. 8, during the 2012 International World War II Conference in New Orleans, Maj. Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk spoke in front of more than 450 attendees about Aug. 6, 1945, when he and the crew of the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima, effectively ending the war.
"We weren't good," he said. "We were just lucky. (Paul) Tibbets, (Tom) Ferebee and I were the three luckiest people in the world. We lived through it. I don't know how we did it. We should have been dead 15 times."
Van Kirk, Tibbets and Ferebee of the 97th Bomb Group flew in the first operational B-17 Flying Fortress unit in England in 1942 and 1943 before they would reunite in 1945 for the Hiroshima mission.
Van Kirk said they went through four different planes in the first 14 missions out of England. "Finally, we saw an airplane over there that was No. 124444. And Tom Ferebee looked at it and said, ‘Four fours. That's a winning poker hand any way you look at it.' So we picked that airplane. And that airplane flew the rest of my 58 missions. Never shot down."
Van Kirk said there is no way to describe what it was like to fly a mission at that time in the war "because it was utter chaos when you got in the air."
He recalled the dangers of flying through enemy-filled skies and one particular instance when "I was looking out the right-hand-side window, and I turned around to look out the left-side window, and almost immediately I turned to look ... and where my head had just been were four bullet holes. That wasn't fun."
He told about the time he didn't trust the radio signals and went with his own instincts, a decision that saved his life. "If I had turned and followed that QDM (code), I would have been out there swimming with the sharks in the Atlantic Ocean. The QDM was wrong."
He told of high-altitude bombing raids, the challenges of finding targets with nothing more than road maps to guide them, landing on makeshift airfields in the Sahara Desert and, finally, coming home where he served as a navigator instructor.
In late 1944, he received a call from Tibbets. "He says, ‘Dutch, I've got a new job for you.' I say, ‘Oh, thanks. What is it?' He says, ‘I can't tell you. It will either end the war or significantly shorten the war.' I say, ‘Yeah, that's what you say.'"
Van Kirk agreed after learning that Ferebee had already volunteered to join the 509th Composite Group that would fly the Enola Gay and drop the atomic bomb on Japan.
At Wendover, Utah, where they trained for the mission, Van Kirk met "one of the scientists on the project who said, ‘We think you'll be OK if you're 100 miles away when the bomb explodes. That's our best guess.' That didn't make me feel any better."
Van Kirk told of passing over the target, dropping the bomb from 33,000 feet, counting the seconds and scorching away. "The war was over. That's it."