Last week I visited D.C.’s Air and Space Museum and the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb. The Enola Gay is housed at the museum’s annex at Dulles airport; it has been beautifully cleaned up, and I couldn’t help feeling a shiver of American pride at seeing it. Few things this side of the polio vaccine are responsible for saving as many lives as the Enola Gay and her sister ship, Bockscar. The Smithsonian describes Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs as “controversial”; what I assume the Smithsonian means, and what it ought to say, is that the necessity of killing to save lives is unfortunate. The Enola Gay’s navigator gracefully summed up this logic in a New York Times interview.
Theodore Van Kirk guided the bomber to Hiroshima; the Times asked him if, given the chance, he would do it again. “Under the same circumstances — and the key words are ‘the same circumstances’ — yes, I would do it again,” said Van Kirk. “ . . . We were fighting an enemy that had a reputation for never surrendering, never accepting defeat. . . . I believe that when you’re in a war, a nation must have the courage to do what it must to win the war with the minimum loss of lives.” An invasion of Japan would have been enormously bloody; Van Kirk and his colleagues made an invasion unnecessary.
Van Kirk was a remarkable man. During the Second World War, a bomber crewman’s tour of duty was 25 missions, after which he would be moved to a less deadly assignment; bomber missions were exceptionally dangerous. Van Kirk flew his 25, then another 25, and was eight missions into a third tour when he was brought back to the United States to serve as an instructor. In Europe, Van Kirk — along with his pilot, Paul Tibbets, and his bombardier, Tom Ferebee — crewed their bomb group’s lead aircraft, with the responsibility for finding and hitting the target. Back in the U.S., Van Kirk was reunited with Tibbets and Ferebee as handpicked members of the crew that would drop the first atomic bomb.
On August 6, 1945, after seven months of training, Van Kirk guided the Enola Gay to Hiroshima, where “Little Boy” was dropped. It destroyed two-thirds of the city and killed about 80,000 people — which, unbelievably, wasn’t enough to persuade Japan to surrender. But it was the first step of a one-two punch that finally forced Japan’s capitulation. The war ended, and a tremendous number of lives were saved.
Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was the last living member of the crew that bombed Hiroshima. The day I visited the Enola Gay, he died. A damned shame. He’s survived by four children, seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Something else unfortunate happened during my visit to the Enola Gay — I don’t mean to draw a comparison, but I think it bears mentioning. I discovered that Air and Space info cards give their measurements in metric (with imperial in parentheses).
Switching to metric alienates America’s past, as it is alienating Britain’s past. Metric is simple but charmless; imperial was good enough to get us to the moon. It’s a small point, perhaps, but seeing the Smithsonian unilaterally run up the white flag is grating, and this seemed like a good opportunity to mention it.
When I looked at the Enola Gay’s metric placard, I was a little irritated; also a little amused. The Enola Gay is the standard-bearer for the B-29, the Second World War’s most advanced bomber. Its enormous range and payload capacity, along with its revolutionary electronics and analog computer systems, made the Soviets desperate to copy it. During the Pacific air campaign, four B-29s made emergency landings in Russia; Stalin ordered a maximum effort to steal and duplicate their design. It was a long and difficult process, which didn’t succeed until two years after the war was over. It was long and difficult because the B-29 was built with imperial measurements, and all Soviet tooling was in metric.
Anyway — Theodore Van Kirk, a great man; dead at 93. R.I.P. Imperial measurement yet survives.
— Josh Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.