A Bomb Without Bombast, in Contrast With Kim Jong Un

The men who ended World War II didn’t preen. They did the job perfectly and barely talked about it.

From left, Maj. Theodore J. Van Kirk, Col. Paul W. Tibbets, and Maj. Tom Ferebee, in 1946.
From left, Maj. Theodore J. Van Kirk, Col. Paul W. Tibbets, and Maj. Tom Ferebee, in 1946. PHOTO: PHOTOQUEST/GETTY IMAGES

‘There was no celebration. You were trained not to do something like that.”

The voice belonged to Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, navigator of the Enola Gay, the U.S. B-29 that in 1945 dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. I’ve been thinking a lot about the crew of that plane as ominous talk of atomic warfare is suddenly in the air. The provocative actions and boastful threats out of North Korea—last week its official government news agency referred to a “plan for reducing the U.S. into ashes”—have rekindled the specter of the once all but inconceivable: atomic strikes.

North Korea’s chest-thumping notwithstanding, I can tell you one thing for a fact: The men who actually dropped that first atomic bomb didn’t preen and they didn’t brag. There was an air of solemnity to them about the task they had been asked to carry out. 

In the spring of 1999 I went on a vacation trip to Branson, Mo., with Van Kirk and two of his oldest friends and Enola Gay crewmates: Paul Tibbets, the pilot, and Tom Ferebee, the bombardier. It was the last reunion they would have; all three men have since died. I was with Van Kirk in his room when I asked whether he and the crew had celebrated their role in the end of the war.

“I don’t think that people back then were as demonstrative as they are today,” he said. “And we certainly were trained not to be that way on our missions. Think about the era we grew up in. Babe Ruth would hit a home run and he would run around the bases, and that would be it. You didn’t show much. You took pride in being disciplined.”

There may, understandably, have been drunken joy in Times Square and around the U.S. after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and then of Nagasaki brought World War II to an end. The dropping of the bombs was later selected by the Associated Press as the No. 1 news story of the 20th century. But no one, before or since, had seen what the men in those B-29s witnessed, and they were in no mood to laugh or dance.

“I would hate to think about someone in my family being down there,” the bombardier, Ferebee, told me. “Parts of buildings were coming up the stem of the bomb—you could tell that something strange was going on, because you could see parts of the city, pieces of the buildings, like they were being sucked up toward us.”

He had done his somber job flawlessly, but he didn’t feel particularly heroic. As a boy in North Carolina, he said, “I wanted to play baseball. That was my dream. I went down to Florida with the St. Louis Cardinals for spring training in 1939. . . . I wasn’t good enough, yet. And then the war came. . . . I would rather have helped the Cardinals win a World Series. That’s all I ever wanted.”

In Branson we would go to dinner in chain restaurants and the other customers would have no idea who the three elderly men were—or what their country once asked of them. Tibbets, who invited me to come on the trip, had been consistent since the end of the war in publicly saying he slept well because he knew how many lives, American and Japanese, his mission had saved by at last bringing the conflict to a close and preventing a land invasion of Japan.

But in quiet moments, he said he fully understood the anguish of people who disagreed with him. “I had a different relationship to that day than they do,” he told me. “But that doesn’t make them wrong. I don’t know who’s wrong or what’s wrong. I don’t know that I’m right. . . . Just because I never was emotional and I never burst into tears doesn’t mean I don’t feel certain things inside me.”

“I don’t think we were violent people,” Dutch Van Kirk told me in a soft voice. “I was 24 when I flew the mission, and to the best of my memory, I had never had a fistfight in my life.”

He said he hoped that what he and the crew did assured a future with no taste for nuclear weapons: “Then I think people will look back at the atomic bomb and think of it as something that helped the world evolve toward a lasting peace.”

And if, after he was gone, ours was not a planet that cherished peace?

“If it isn’t,” he said, “people will be tossing atomic bombs around like they’re going out of style.”

Mr. Greene’s books include “Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War,” about his father and Paul Tibbets.

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