|Volume LIV||November 2007||Number 4|
How One Brother Helped to Shape History
It is a day the United States, and the world,
will not soon forget: Aug. 6, 1945. On this day,
the United States dropped an atomic bomb, the
first of its kind, on Hiroshima, Japan. For one
Pennsylvania Mason, this day is remembered
through his first-hand account aboard the Enola
Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber responsible
for dropping the bomb on Japan.
Navigator Lt. and Bro. Ted "Dutch" Van Kirk, Eureka Lodge No. 404, Northumberland, joined the U.S. Air Force in 1939, at age 19, knowing the country would be in a war sooner or later. To make the best of a bad situation, he decided he'd "rather fly than walk in the mud."
His primary job was guiding the plane to the target and returning to base, but Bro. Van Kirk also faced situations in which he had to use the B-17's machine gun. It was always a thrilling experience to see the wings of attacking planes light up as they fired. He recalls his aim was less than perfect.
"We were the lousiest shot you ever saw," he said of himself and bombardier, Lt. Tom Ferebee. "We were credited with using the most ammunition without hitting anything."
Throughout his career as a navigator, he flew on 58 missions in Europe and one in the Pacific. He was a member of the first B-17 bomber groups out of England to fly over occupied Europe. Another one of his missions was to lead a group of six planes transporting Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff over hostile waters, from England to Gibraltar, in the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. All insignia identifying the planes and the crew as American was removed.
"A higher authority tells you what you're going to do and when, and as the lead airplane, it's your job not to [foul] it up," Bro. Van Kirk said. "If you do, everyone will follow."
Once in Gibraltar, an important naval base for the British, Bro. Van Kirk saw an image he'll never forget.
"To watch the invasion fleet steaming through the Strait of Gibraltar was a sight to see," he said. "It was small in comparison to the invasion at Normandy, but to this day, it makes my blood chill."
His most famous mission, at the age of 24, was to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.
"At the time, we didn't realize we were making history," Bro. Van Kirk said. "Our objective was to shorten or end the war; to stop the killing. We didn't realize until the press brought it up what a big deal it was."
His crew included Lt. Ferebee and pilot Col. Paul Tibbets, with whom he had flown many missions. They were told about the mission in early 1945, and were given full disclosure on the purpose and significance of it. After months of training and briefings, the only detail left undetermined was the weather.
"We knew how much money had been spent on atomic energy," he said. "They built cities just to develop its capabilities. The amount of scientific man power - all of it - was resting on our shoulders. If we were not successful, we didn't have many other chances to end the war. We would have to invade Japan and many lives would be lost."
Typically, a bomb explodes with the delivery plane still in the air above it, so the pilot immediately sees if the target was hit. With the atomic bomb, according to scientists, the plane had to be nine miles away before the bomb detonated or they "wouldn't make it," Bro. Van Kirk said. "We stripped the airplane of any weight we could to make it lighter. After releasing the bomb, we had to make an immediate 150 degree turn to get the maximum distance from the explosion. There were 43 seconds from the time the bomb was dropped to its explosion."
"All we saw was a bright flash, like a photographer's flash in a dark closet. The first shock wave, with a magnitude of 2½ g, hit us and it sounded like sheet metal snapping. We turned around to take a look and saw the large white cloud well above our altitude. It was shades and hues of purple on top and white around the base. The entire city was covered with thick black smoke, so we couldn't make any visuals of the damage."
After that unforgettable flight one summer day, debates flourished about the use of nuclear weapons. Immediately after the war, people seemed in favor of using atomic bombs, but as time has passed, opinion has changed and the today the argument still rages.
"It caused a lot of casualties, but overall saved many lives. The Japanese would not have surrendered by August 6. They had large land armies and thousands of people were being killed throughout China and other countries they had invaded," Bro. Van Kirk said. "Now that we understand the dangers of using one, I hope atomic weapons are never again used in warfare."
His military service earned him a Silver Star and other medals and ribbons. He went on to receive a bachelor's and master's degree in chemical engineering and moved all over the world as an employee of DuPont. He has four children and seven grandchildren, and enjoys taking vacations with his family.
"I'm really blessed with a wonderful family," he said. "We practice togetherness, when we have the time."
His father, uncle and many other relatives were Masons, so it was an easy decision for him to join the fraternity. He has made many friends in the process. Members of his lodge presented him with his 50-year Masonic Service Award in the spring.
Bro. Van Kirk was featured in the HBO documentary, "White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," which premiered in August. He also speaks at many schools and other events, including a recent occasion at his lodge. The interview requests have waned over the years, although close to the anniversary of the bombing, he receives inquiries from talk shows and radio shows.
A modern-day hero, patriot and Mason, Bro. Van Kirk's brave and selfless service helped to change the course of history and preserve the freedom we enjoy today.
Photo credit: Bro. Tom Reimensnyder
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