Topic: "Great American Hero" (2)
Dutch Van Kirk was a veteran of 58 flights over Europe as 1943 came to an end. In addition to bombing German cities, he'd flown Eisenhower and Mark Clark into North Africa. The rotational nature of wartime piloting however, meant that his next assignments would reduce his exposure to harm's way. Despite the importance of the training that he could provide to those who would follow, he was quick to take advantage of an opportunity to return to his Navigator's role. To this day he and Paul Tibbets disagree as to whether or not he volunteered when asked if he would be interested in a new assignment, this time in the Pacific.
Frodo placed his chin in the cup of his fingers as he listened, enthralled, to the remembrances of the 86 year-old resident of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Van Kirk spoke of the security measures surrounding the training, which took place in remote corners of the globe including Cuba, the Phillipines, and the Northern Marianna Islands. Military personnel who disclosed information, even inadvertently, found themselves reassigned to the Aleutian Islands. He told the entire roomful of people that he got to know many of the non-military scientists personally, and that Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer were often offering suggestions and asking questions of him. In the end, he said, they told him their best guess was that the plane would have to be at least nine miles away from the site when the explosion occurred.
"You guess?," he said.
The night before they took off, neither he nor Tibbets, nor any of the other crew members slept a wink.
"We played poker, all of us." When the game was over, the crew felt as if they were entering a Hollywood movie set, although there were no media present, at all. Then at 2:45 AM, their plane taxied down the runway and, even though it was more than 8800 pounds overweight, lifted to 2000 feet where they held steady until they reached Iwo Jima. Their instructions were not to land anywhere if trouble occurred.
From Iwo the "Enola B Gay" climbed to 30,000 feet, and Tibbets levelled her at that altitude until they approached the target. To this point, the entire mission was flawless. Exactly 12 seconds past the prescribed moment, and 1800 feet from the surface of the Earth, the bomb exploded. It took exactly 43 seconds for the 9400 pound package to escape the plane and to detonate. As soon as it was released, Tibbets turned the plane 150 degrees, nose down, and at full throttle the plane would be 12 miles away when the blast commenced.
All of the crew wore dark glasses, and none of the cockpit crew saw anything other than the sensation of light coming from behind. The rear turret gunner saw the first shock wave coming. When it struck it was as if flak was exploding about the plane. A second shock wave followed shortly thereafter.
"At Nagasaki," he said, "there was a third shock wave. That was because it was a plutonium bomb. The one we dropped was the only U-235 bomb, and that was because it used up all the U-235 which had taken Oak Ridge three full years to manufacture." "In fact, the Japanese knew that we didn't have enough U-235 to make another bomb, and that is why they didn't respond to the first call to unconditional surrender. They didn't believe we could do it again, so soon."
Frodo had not remembered to breathe for the last several minutes; just listening.
"We circled back, but by then there was only a cloud stretching beyond 50,000 feet, and we were unable to see anything of the earth's surface, so we headed home to Tinian. We could see the cloud in the distance some 267 miles later."
Van Kirk said that every general and admiral in the whole American military establishment was waiting for them when they landed. When the de-briefings were over Van Kirk exercised the committment given to him previously, and he left active duty and returned home.
From the audience a gentleman introduced himself, and stated that he was a US Marine, on Okinawa, on that fateful day in August, 1945, and that he had always wanted to shake the hands of the men who brought the War to an end. Frodo felt his heart in his throat as the once-warriors embraced.
Dutch van Kirk had a moment in time, just as Andy Warhol so eloquently described of us all. His moment changed the world, forever. There are many remarkable people, and Frodo got to know one more. It is Frodo's good fortune.