Captain Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, the last surviving member of the Enola Gay crew, died Monday at an assisted living facility in Georgia, the Los Angeles Times reports. He was 93.
Van Kirk was involved in 58 World War II combat missions. He had already retired from combat duty and was working as an instructor in New Orleans when Paul Tibbets, a good friend, approached him and asked if he'd be part of "a top-secret bombing mission," the LA Times continues. As Van Kirk later recalled, in an interview with Time: "He told me, ‘We’re going to do something that I can’t tell you about right now, but if it works, it will end or significantly shorten the war.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, buddy, I’ve heard that before.’ ”
Van Kirk agreed, becoming navigator for the Enola Gay—the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, marking the beginning of the atomic age—under Tibbets' command.
The bomb instantaneously killed 80,000 people; radiation poisoning eventually cost many more lives. But Van Kirk said he never had mixed feelings about his involvement. The LA Times:
Van Kirk, who looked down at the city for a jarring moment and saw what he later likened to a pot of boiling tar, had just one thought at the time, he said in numerous interviews: "The war's over."
"Do I regret what we did that day? No sir, I do not," he told the Sunday Mirror, a British newspaper, in 2010. "I have never apologized for what we did to Hiroshima and I never will."
After the mission, Van Kirk enrolled in college and graduate school, becoming a chemical engineer at DuPont. In later years, he became more involved in anniversary and media events surrounding Hiroshima, the LA Times writes, and always emphasized his belief that the bomb was a necessary step for ending the war.