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Enola Gay navigator to speak in L.A.

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By Special to the Monitor

Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, the navigator for the Enola Gay, will be in Los Alamos Sunday for an appearance and book signing sponsored by the Los Alamos Historical Society. One of two surviving crewmembers of the Enola Gay, Van Kirk served as the navigator for the 509th Composite Group, the squadron that ultimately delivered the atomic bombs on Japan.

Tickets for the event are $5 and are available at the Los Alamos Historical Museum Shop, 1050 Bathtub Row, just north of Fuller Lodge.

Van Kirk’s book signing and presentation will begin at 1 p.m. in the Pajarito Room of Fuller Lodge. He will show a short DVD with archival footage and interviews of the Enola Gay crew as well as talk about some of his experiences. He will also sign books, “The 509th Remembered,” which will be on sale at the event. All other autographs are $20 each.

Van Kirk was born Feb. 27, 1921 in Northumberland, Penn. After high school, he attended Susquehanna University and worked in a grocery store before joining the Air Cadet program of the Army Air Corps in October 1941. He graduated from navigation school and in April 1942 was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant at Kelly Field, Texas.

“Dutch” was then assigned to the 97th Bomb Group, flying B17 missions out of England as a navigator with the crew of pilot, Paul Tibbets and bombardier, Tom Ferebee, flying most of those missions in the lead aircraft.

Van Kirk flew 58 missions in England and North Africa before returning to the United States. He was assigned to navigation training and in November 1944 became group navigator of the 509th Composite Group, training for atom bomb delivery. Quietly, in June 1945, the group started moving overseas to the Pacific Island of Tinian in the Marianas chain. Their familiar arrowhead tail markings were changed on both sides to the letter “R” in a circle, standard identification for the Sixth Bomb Group. The idea behind this change was to confuse the enemy if they made contact, which they did not.

On Aug. 6, 1945, Van Kirk was navigator on the first atomic bombing mission. At 2:30 a.m., the Enola Gay lifted off North Field enroute to Hiroshima, Japan.

“I knew when we hit the coast of Japan we were well on the way to completing a successful mission and the new bomb we carried would be a great help in shortening the war,” Van Kirk said.

At exactly 09:15:15, the world’s first atomic bomb to be used in warfare exploded. When the Enola Gay landed back on Tinian Island at 2:58 p.m., the plane and crew were greeted by General Spaatz, a large contingent of brass and jubilant GIs. Van Kirk later participated in the first Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests. Among his decorations are the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with 14 oak leaf clusters, plus many Theater awards.

In August 1946, having reached the rank of Major, Van Kirk returned to civilian life. He went back to his long-delayed college career earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering at Bucknell University.

After 35 years with a major chemical company, he retired in 1985.