On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I spent a lot of time at the relatively new World War II memorial. I wasn't paying as much attention to the monument itself, which is magnificent in its simplicity, but was more interested in watching the people who were visiting the edifice.
Many of them walked with canes. A few were actually in wheelchairs. Some wore vests covered with badges and others wore old fashioned campaign hats. They were veterans of the conflict that saved the world, and I was struck by how old they seemed. And then I did the math.
V-J Day was 64 years ago, meaning that most survivors of that great global conflict are well into their 80s now. At last count there were approximately 3 million American World War II veterans left alive, and that number is dwindling with each passing day - taking an important part of our nation's history with them.
One of the most important - and controversial - missions of the entire war was the flight of the Enola Gay, the aircraft piloted by Capt. Paul Tibbets that dropped the world's first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Actually, there was very little controversy at the time because the weapon dropped on Hiroshima, along with the one used against Nagasaki three days later, ended the war and potentially saved millions of lives - American and Japanese. Almost everyone alive at the time realized that was a good thing.
It was later that revisionist historians began to suggest that the Japanese, who had fought to the last man on Okinawa a couple of months earlier and on Iwo Jima before that - the same Japanese who didn't even surrender after the first atomic bomb was dropped - were a beaten bunch just waiting for a chance to end the war.
Second-guessing President Truman's decision to use the weaponry at his disposal became fashionable in some circles and, even today, some people like to debate the issue as if Truman even had a decision to make.
But back to the Enola Gay. The actual plane was a B-29 Superfortress, which was named for the pilot's mother. The crew consisted of 11 young men who had been handpicked for the historic mission that would change the course of human history. Two of those young men are still alive. Morris Jeppson was 19 years old when the war began. He joined the Army Air Corps hoping to do his part to win the war before pursuing his ultimate goal of becoming a physicist. He was trained for his duties as a part of the Enola Gay crew at Harvard and MIT. It was his job to arm the bomb.
The other surviving crew member is Theodore Van Kirk, who has answered to the nickname "Dutch" for most of his life. Van Kirk, a Pennsylvania native, was an "old man" of 24 on Aug. 6 in 1945. He had already experienced a lifetime of excitement in the war, having flown numerous bombing missions over Germany, escorted Gen. Mark Clark to Gibraltar to help plan Operation Torch, and actually helped bring Eisenhower, himself, to Gibraltar to prepare for the invasion of North Africa.
After flying a total of 58 missions, Van Kirk returned stateside in 1943 to begin training for a mission that, if accomplished, could end the war. He was reunited with Paul Tibbets, with whom he had flown in England, and they began to train, along with others, for the mission of all missions. Van Kirk was the navigator of the Enola Gay when it took off from the island of Tinian on Aug. 6, 1945 - destination Hiroshima - and destiny.
Van Kirk would leave the Air Corps in 1946, having obtained the rank of major and having been decorated with the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and 15 Air Medals. He had also secured for himself a permanent place in history. After the war he graduated from Bucknell University with a degree in chemical engineering and worked for the DuPont Company for 35 years.
Now, believe it or not, I told you all that to tell you this.
Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk will be in our neck of the woods tonight. He will be speaking about his experiences on the Enola Gay at 6:30 p.m. this very evening, at the V.F.W. in Conyers, and the public is invited. The V.F.W. is at 1430 VFW Drive, just off the access road in Conyers, slightly west of West Avenue. (That's toward Atlanta, in case, unlike Major Van Kirk, you aren't real good at navigating.)
Let your mind wrap around this little nugget of information for a moment. One of the men who flew the most significant mission in the history of warfare will be speaking in Conyers tonight and all who are interested in hearing a first-person account of this historic event are welcome to come. Such opportunities, in the future, will be few and far between.
I hope to have a front row seat, and I hope to see a lot of you there. This man helped end the war and save hundreds of thousands of American lives. I look forward to the chance to meet him and say thank you. I hope you will, too.