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Wednesday, 12 June, 2002, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Hiroshima veteran's warning from history
Mr Van Kirk gave a personal warning of the nuclear risk

As India and Pakistan tentatively pull back from the brink of nuclear war, the man involved in dropping the world's first atomic bomb says he believes the legacy of Hiroshima has been pivotal in ensuring history is not repeated.

Captain Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk's comments came at an auction in San Francisco, California, where he was selling some rare items of memorabilia from the mission on 6 August 1945.

Among them were instruments, including the original master clock and sextant from the B-29 bomber aircraft 'Enola Gay', on which Mr Van Kirk was navigator.

Also under the hammer were Mr Van Kirk's semi-automatic pistol, his tunic, scrapbooks and the log he used to note the position and time that the nuclear device was dropped.

Captain Van Kirk (r) at San Francisco auction
Captain Van Kirk (R) at San Francisco auction

The time was 0915 and 15 seconds. Forty three seconds later, the atomic bomb called 'Little Boy' exploded over Hiroshima, destroying the city and ushering in the dawn of the Nuclear Age.

Mr Van Kirk recalled: "All we saw was a flash of light because we were going away from the bomb at the time.

"Then shortly thereafter we got two shockwaves After we were certain we weren't going to get any more of those, we turned the plane to take a look at the city."

"The first thing you spotted was a big white cloud. It was probably 40,000 feet already and around the base of that cloud the entire city of Hiroshima was covered with smoke and dust and you couldn't observe a thing down there."

Suffering shock

The attack, which resulted in the death of some 140,000 people, is considered by many to be the most crucial event of the war and the defining act for mankind in the 20th Century.

Enola Gay (Picture: Federation of American Scientists)
'Enola Gay': The B-29 bomber which flew the Hiroshima mission

Three days after Hiroshima, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

On 2 September 1945, the Japanese officially surrendered, and the war was over.

Mr Van Kirk says that was the point of what the Americans were trying to do.

"We knew it was going to cause tremendous damage, but when Paul Tibbets (the pilot) called me to ask me to join this particular mission, he said that if what we are working on works, it's either going to shorten or end the war,

I think this is probably the single most important event in war ... This is great history

Robert Limacher, auction browser

The 81 year-old former navigator says if the circumstances were the same, he would do it all again.

"That's the key point. I don't suppose you could duplicate the same circumstances, but to start a new use of atomic weapons say with India and Pakistan, that would be crazy.

"But if you are in a war and everyone's been fighting for a long time, it's costing hundreds of thousands of lives, it's costing millions of dollars, it's gone on for five years, you and everyone are just tired of this.

"We were a bunch of civilians that they put uniforms on and we all wanted to get out."

Importance of history

At the sale, buyers rubbed shoulders with veterans and enthusiasts who treated Mr Van Kirk like a celebrity.

They listened to his first hand account of what it was like to be involved in a mission regarded as one of the most significant - and also one of the most awful.

Two bomb plugs from the
Two bomb plugs from the "Little Boy" atomic bomb

Robert Limacher said: "I'm just interested in seeing the man. I think this is probably the single most important event in war and I was just hoping to see Mr Van Kirk and eavesdrop on what he has to say. This is great history."

The auction also attracted the attention of the US attorney, who put a temporary restraining order on two bomb plugs from 'Little Boy' changing hands.

They are the only surviving artefacts from the actual bomb and are owned by the Enola Gay mission's weapons test officer, Lieutenant Morris Jeppson.

The auction house said the US Attorney, acting on behalf of the government and the Smithsonian Museum, claims the plugs have not been declassified.

The sale was allowed to go ahead but the eventual owner will be decided by a court case this Friday.

Such legal shenanigans did not put Clay Perkins off.

The former physicist from southern California bid $150,000 for the plugs to hopefully add to his own collection of militaria:

"I was 11 years-old when the bomb exploded, just the right time to be impressionable. I saw news articles afterwards following the event. This is a piece of history," he said.

See also:

28 Mar 02 | Americas
12 Jun 02 | South Asia
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