Maj. Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk tells attendees of the International Conference on World War II about his role as a navigator in the European theater before his war-ending mission to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Photo by Jeff Stoffer

From Nazi skies to the Enola Gay

History buffs and authors came face to face with history Saturday in New Orleans.

The 2012 International World War II Conference in New Orleans maintained focus as much as possible on the years 1942 and 1943, and the stage that had to be set in order to topple Nazi Germany and Japan in 1944 and 1945. That focus was knocked off course for a portion of Saturday's session after Maj. Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk took a seat onstage and began answering questions about his historic role in the ending of World War II.

Van Kirk stuck with the theme of the conference in the beginning, telling about freezing conditions inside B-17s, the tedious challenge of fueling them out of 5-gallon cans, loading the bombs, and flying through dangerous skies to North Africa and over Western Europe. He had, after all, flown 58 missions between August 1942 and April 1943.

Inevitably, attendees of the conference wanted to know more about Aug. 6, 1945, when Van Kirk and the crew of the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima, effectively ending the war. "We weren't good," he told more than 450 gathered for the conference put on by the National World War II Museum. "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 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, 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 Ferebree 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."

Prior to Van Kirk's appearance, author and historian Donald Miller discussed the dangers and uncertainties of the air war in Europe. "Chances of survival were about one in four," he said. "It was like Russian roulette. Above all, it was an experiment."

Miller described how the high-altitude battles above Europe were "ethereal" in unpressurized planes, freezing conditions, no medics and thin oxygen. He said 77 percent of the 8th Air Force before D-Day suffered casualties.

Following their presentations, Miller and Van Kirk autographed books, posed for photos and visited with attendees. Miller, author of "Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany," was a historical consultant for HBO's miniseries "The Pacific" and writer for "WWII in HD," a 10-hour series on the History Channel.