On 6 August 1945 the crew of the “Enola Gay” dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was the navigator on this historic mission. Van Kirk joined the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program in October 1941. On 1 April 1942 he received both his commission and navigator wings and transferred to the 97th Bomb Group, the first operational B-17 Flying Fortress unit in England. The crew of the “Red Gremlin” also included pilot Paul Tibbets and Tom Ferebee, bombardier. Van Kirk would later fly with these men on the Hiroshima mission. From August to October 1942 the crew flew 11 missions out of England. They were also the lead aircraft, responsible for group navigation and bombing.
In October 1942 they flew General Mark Clark to Gibraltar for his secret North African rendezvous with the French prior to Operation Torch. In November they ferried General Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gibraltar to command the North African invasion forces. After German reinforcements began pouring into the port of Bizerte, Tunisia, posing a serious threat to Allied strategy, a new mission emerged. On 16 November 1942 the crew led their group in an attack that took the Germans by complete surprise at Sidi Ahmed Air Base at Bizerte. Van Kirk returned to the States in June 1943 after flying a total of 58 missions overseas. He served as an instructor navigator until reuniting with Tibbets and Ferebee in the 509th Composite Group at Wendover Field, Utah, in late 1944.
The group flew the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, with Tibbets as commander and Van Kirk as the group navigator. From November 1944 to June 1945 they trained continually for the first atomic bomb drop. The day they had so diligently prepared for arrived on 6 August 1945. The thirteen-hour mission to Hiroshima began at 0245 Tinian time. By the time they rendezvoused with their accompanying B-29s at 0607 over Iwo Jima, the group was three hours from the target area. As they approached the target Van Kirk worked closely with the bombardier, Tom Ferebee, to confirm the winds and aimpoint. The bomb fell away from the aircraft at 0915:17 Tinian time.
Van Kirk later participated in Crossroads, the first Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests. In August 1946 he completed his service in the Air Corps as a major. His decorations include the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and 15 Air Medals. Van Kirk went on to receive his Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Chemical Engineering from Bucknell University in 1949 and 1950. For the next 35 years he held various technical and managerial positions in research and marketing with a major US company.