Sixty-four years ago, Theodore "Dutch" van Kirk guided the B-29 bomber Enola Gay to Hiroshima and watched the city disappear in an atomic flash.
On Tuesday, the navigator recounted his most famous mission to a group of about 70 World War II veterans and their guests at the Red Rocks Cafe in south Charlotte.
Van Kirk, who lives in Stone Mountain, Ga., doesn't regret his role in dropping the atomic bomb. He believes it saved more lives than it took, by shortening the war and eliminating the need for an American ground invasion of Japan.
Now 88, he said he never expected to live so long during his first bombing raids over Europe in 1942, when he was 20. "After my first three missions, I said, 'I'm never gonna live to be 21,'" said van Kirk.
But he survived almost 60 combat missions and three lost planes, returning to America to teach other navigators. Then the pilot he'd flown with in Europe, Paul Tibbets, asked if he wanted to join a special, top-secret bomber group, the 509th.
No one told them exactly what they were doing or used the word "atomic." But van Kirk said everyone quickly realized why their base was swarming with nuclear scientists and their planes had only one hook in the bomb bay.
"If you were in the 509th and didn't figure out you were going to drop an atomic bomb, you were pretty stupid," he said.
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