Not too many years ago I came across a wonderful article in The New Yorker magazine about Atomic John, a “sixty-one-year-old truck driver from Waukesha, Wisconsin, named John Coster-Mullen, who was once a commercial photographer, and has never received a college degree.” Through his own painstaking research over many years, 'Atomic John' was able to piece together just how the first atomic bombs were made and published his findings in a self-published book entitled “Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of LittleBoy and Fat Man.” The book is spiral bound and contains not only the story of Little Boy and Fat Man, told in intricate detail, but also the story of the bombing missions, and the men who flew those missions, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a fascinating read!
The decisions to develop and use atomic weapons were not easy decisions to make. The historical record is clear that all those involved in the process had a very good idea of what they were committing to and even the long-term consequences of their decision. But their overriding concern was to bring an end to the global war and, hopefully, preclude the enormous casualties expected as a result of the intended Allied Powers' invasion of the Japanese home islands. In fact, operational planners has estimated that casualties might run as high as one million.
While one could spend a lifetime pouring through all that has been written about World War II, the nuclear era that dawned from the Manhattan Project, and the extraordinary stories of the men and women involved, every once in a while there comes along a story or two that provides a nice little peak into all of this. Band of Brothers is one such example in the video world as were Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, among others. Once An Eagle, in the print medium, is a superb fictional work spanning America's experience in war at the personal level, from WWI into Vietnam, in the same way that The Killer Angels or The Red Badge of Courage highlighted the personal perspectives of men engaged in the Civil War.
I'm not claiming that "Atom Bombs" is on such an exalted level but it does provide a peak at the men who were involved with the atomic missions that brought an end to the Second World War, which brings us to this wonderful little story about one of the key crew members of Enola Gay.
There aren't many veterans left from the era that shaped the world we have today. On the one hand the passing of Dutch VanKirk is a simple announcement that there is now one less veteran of that time and one more family that will both mourn the personal loss but also celebrate a life well lived. But on the other, the unique part he played in such an extraordinary story hopefully gives a bit more reason to pause to consider that magnitude of the event, the time, the people, and the issues at stake in that era.
See Last crew member of Enola Gay dies, a brief reporting of the passing of “Dutch” VanKirk, the navigator for the Hiroshima mission and last crew member of the Enola Gay.