Van Kirk, 88, was the navigator of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the "Fat Boy" atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The then-24-year-old and the crew had trained for months specifically for this mission. After flying 58 overseas missions, his 509th composite group got the go-ahead at 10 p.m. the evening before the fateful day of August 6, 1945.
"I don't know how they expect to tell you that you're going out to drop the atom bomb and not know if it's going to work or if it's going to blow up the airplane, and then tell you to go get some sleep," said Van Kirk.
His job as navigator was to keep the plane on course for the 12-hour commute from Tinian to Hiroshima. Van Kirk recalled the plane jumped as the 10,000 pound bomb was released.
Immediately, the plane took a 180-degree turn, and they flew away as fast as they could. As the bomb exploded, all they could see in the airplane was a bright flash.
"The first shock wave hit us, and the plane snapped all over," Van Kirk said. "We could make no visual observation because the entire city was covered in black smoke and dust, debris that had been kicked up by the bomb and the blast, and a large white cloud that you've seen pictures of...Somebody said, and I thought too, ‘This war is over.'"
Amazingly, Van Kirk said that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was one of his easiest assignments. During previous missions in Europe and northern Africa, where he ferried the likes of General Dwight D. Eisenhower to invasion sites, the Germans would bombard them with fire.
"We were well trained and everything went according to plan. By that time they were a defeated nation; their air force and navy were beaten. All they had was a large land army. They didn't have defenses against high-flying airplanes. We didn't see any fighter planes, and they didn't have any anti-aircraft that could get to us, so it was relatively easy.
Due to Japan's militaristic form of government, they had refused the Allies' offer of unconditional surrender. According to Van Kirk, "They needed a shock of some type...it had to be an invasion or blockade of the islands. Of the alternatives, in my opinion, although a lot of history professors don't agree with me, the atomic bomb was the least expensive way, in terms of lives, to accomplish our objectives. If you were living in Hiroshima at the time, it's hard for you to understand."
After the war, he remained in the service another year or so working in New Mexico and Bikini Island, in the Pacific, doing further nuclear testing missions, achieving the rank of Major. After he left, he decided to resume his studies in chemical engineering at Bucknell University. Upon graduating with a master's degree, he went on to enjoy a successful career at DuPont, rising to the position of vice president in the chemicals division by the time he retired.
Just as retired life was becoming a bit dull for Van Kirk, he received summons from two of his Enola Gay cronies, Gen. Paul Tibbetts and Col. Tom Ferebee, to join them on the lecture circuit.
Dutch credits his longevity and vitality partially to never smoking, also to keeping active and engaged. He was still flying his much-loved airplanes until he was 80 and keeps a daunting travel schedule for speaking engagements. His doctor recently told him to "keep up whatever it is you're doing."
Life wasn't a complete joy ride for Van Kirk. His first wife died relatively early at age 51 leaving him the care of four teenagers. But like with every other challenge he's faced, he tackled it head on. All four children have experienced great success in their respective careers. "I really do have one great family," Van Kirk said.
On the horizon for Mr. Van Kirk is a 509th reunion next month in Albuquerque, N.M., as well as continuing to archive his papers and memorabilia, which he plans to donate to the University of North Carolina Charlotte.
To learn more, attend his VFW talk Wednesday 6:30 p.m. at 1432 VFW Drive or pick up the "509th Remembered," a pictorial history of some of his exploits. For more information on the talk, call (678) 4448-6999.