Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, a navigator who on Aug. 6, 1945, guided the Enola Gay over Hiroshima to drop the first nuclear bomb in the history of warfare, died Monday at an assisted living facility in Stone Mountain, Ga. He was 93.
The last surviving member of the Enola Gay's 12-member crew, Van Kirk died of age-related causes, said his son Tom.
A veteran of 58 World War II combat missions over Europe and Africa, Van Kirk was told he had been chosen for a top-secret bombing mission that could help end World War II. The payload was never specified.
Boarding the stripped-down B-29 on the island of Tinian in the northern Marianas, Van Kirk and his crewmates flew some 1,700 miles to Japan. They dropped a bomb code-named Little Boy, which took 43 seconds to detonate, generating a burst of heat estimated at 50 million degrees. At 8:16 a.m. local time, Little Boy ushered in the dawn of the atomic age, destroying most of Hiroshima in a blinding flash. A poisonous mushroom cloud rose more than 50,000 feet.
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.
At least 80,000 of Hiroshima's residents were killed instantly and more were contaminated by nuclear fallout. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On Aug. 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
Van Kirk was frequently asked whether the Enola Gay's crew members experienced any physical or emotional damage from the bombing.
"We did not suffer any effects from radiation, and none of us, I will add, had any psychological effects," he told NPR on the bombing's 60th anniversary in 2005.
Van Kirk didn't talk much about Hiroshima until anniversaries started becoming major media events, his son said.
"He thought he did his duty," his son said. "Given the circumstances the country found itself in, with an enemy showing no desire to not continue to engage in war, with invasion imminent, he felt it was exactly the kind of thing this country should have done."
Van Kirk was widowed twice. His survivors include four children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.