PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- This past August 6 was the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, which hastened the Japanese surrender during World War II.The anniversary garnered some media interest, mostly about the survivors and how the city rebuilt itself from the ashes after the first use of the atomic bomb.But there was little mention of the crew of the B-29, hastily named the Enola Gay after the mother of the pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, Jr.My connection with the Enola Gay was meeting the navigator on that mission, Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk. We met at the Greenwood Lake airshow a few years ago. The last surviving member of the Enola Gay crew, Van Kirk died on July 27, 2014.Dutch was nearing 90 when I met him as he sat in a hangar, selling a book titled, "The 509th Remembered, A History of the 509th Composite Group as told by the Veterans Themselves At A Recent Reunion."No one recognized the source of his fame, though there was a sign with his name.
I greeted him and, for about an hour, we spoke about that mission as though it has occurred yesterday."I volunteered to fly with Paul," recalled Dutch."I had flown missions with him in Europe and when we returned home he told me, 'You are volunteering to fly with me again,'" he remembered.He told me about the solemn secrecy of the mission. Any infraction would mean harsh discipline and a transfer to the Aleutians islands.He recounted the real-life story of the crew, as well as the senior leaders, who planned and organized the mission. But what left me in awe was what Dutch was told by Tibbets. Their chances of surviving this mission was slim.Yet, these members of the greatest generation gambled their lives, hoping their mission would be successful so that thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airman and Marines would not have to die attempting to invade Japan.It has been estimated that the government placed an order for a staggering 500,000 Purple Heart medals, all in anticipation of the invasion of Japan.Dutch, who was only 24 years old at the time, had no hesitation about his part in dropping the first atomic bomb because "they (Japanese) would not give up."Dutch left the service as a major in 1946 with a Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the mission.Like so many of his generation, he got married and went to college on the G.I. Bill.He became a chemical engineer for DuPont, raised his children, and went on with his life, stating that his military service was simply his duty.What I will never forget his last words before we parted.He said that he spent his retirement years speaking at schools and was frustrated with our education system because our children have no idea of what World War II was about. Some students even called it World War eleven.For that hour, at the Greenwood Lake airshow, this quite unassuming patriot shared his stories of self-less service and sacrifice so that thousands of warfighters would be spared the casualties certain to result from a grinding and costly invasion of Japan.Van Kirk's sacrifice will never be forgotten, especially by me.