Last week, a vintage B-17 bomber soared over the grave site service of Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk in Northumberland County before landing at the Sunbury Airfield.
It was a fitting tribute to the last surviving member of the Enola Gay crew who landed on the same airstrip when he returned home from war 70 years ago. Van Kirk died of natural causes at the age of 93 at home in Stone Mountain, Georgia on July 28.
The 24-year old navigator and his fellow crewmen helped bring the war against Japan to a rapid end when their B-29 Superfortress dropped the bomb called "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Gov. Tom Corbett noted Van Kirk's passing last week, explaining how he helped to save the world from tyranny before returning home to live the quiet life of a citizen.
"With the passing of a member of the Greatest Generation, we can only be reminded of the courage, sacrifice and unassuming patriotism of men such as Dutch Van Kirk," Corbett stated.
To his friends in Northumberland, Van Kirk was a quiet and gracious friend who was simply known as "TD." One friend said he was proud of his accomplishments, but at the same very humble.
Some of us were fortunate to meet Van Kirk when he was a frequent guest at the World War II Weekend shows at Reading airport. There, he often shared first-hand accounts of the famous mission that brought an end to the costliest war in history. Estimates of American casualties for a planned invasion of Japan, which was abandoned after the bomb was dropped and Japan surrendered, ranged into the millions.
Van Kirk said that after dropping the bomb, the city was not visible because of the smoke and dust. At the moment, the crew's biggest worry was getting away from the blast site.
Van Kirk stated that he had no second thoughts about the mission that changed the world forever. He did state that his wartime experience showed him that wars and atomic bombs don't settle anything, and he favored abolishing the weapon.
Dick Simpson, the former commander of the American Legion in Northumberland, said when a small town loses a hero, it's a big loss. Prior to the passing of the famous airman, Simpson said he didn't know of a local teacher, especially on the grade school level, who didn't at least mention that Dutch Van Kirk was originally from Northumberland.
That's important. It's incumbent that the children remember what happened that day and that one of Northumberland's native sons - a member of our dwindling World War II fraternity known as the Greatest Generation - once sat at a desk in their own school system.
By Jim Zbick