Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, the last surviving member of the Enola Gay plane that dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, has died at a retirement home in Georgia at age 93, media reports said.
Van Kirk was the navigator on the flight that dropped the first nuclear bomb used in warfare. He later told reporters that after seeing one atomic bomb explode in war, he never wanted to see another one used again.
But he defended the use of the bomb, describing it as the lesser of two evils when compared to the continued aerial assault of the Japanese main islands and a planned U.S. invasion.
"The bomb really saved lives, in spite of the tremendous number of casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because the destruction that would have been caused in Japan otherwise would have been tremendous," he said in an oral history for Georgia Public Broadcasting.
The U.S. B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, carrying 12 crew members, dropped the atomic bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy", on Hiroshima in the closing days of World War Two. The death toll from the blast by the end of the year was estimated at about 140,000, out of the total of 350,000 who lived there at the time.
Three days after the Hiroshima bombing, the United States dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed "Fat Man" on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, bringing World War Two to an end.
The Pennsylvania-born Van Kirk flew missions in Europe during the war and visited Nagasaki in the aftermath of the atomic blast there. He studied chemical engineering after the war and became an executive with DuPont.
He said the Hiroshima mission was relatively easy, with no anti-aircraft fire coming from the ground. The big worry was whether the plane would blow up after the bomb detonated, he told Georgia Public Broadcasting.
He said that 43 seconds after the bomb was dropped, he saw a flash from the blast. A shockwave then came and shook the aircraft.
Officials at the Park Springs Retirement Community in Stone Mountain, a suburb of Atlanta, confirmed his death, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Local broadcasters also quoted his son as confirming the death.
A funeral for Van Kirk is planned for Aug. 5 in his hometown of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, the paper said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Peter Cooney)