It is a sad, but unavoidable fact that every day we lose more and more of the “Greatest Generation”. According to the National WWII Museum, approximately 555 WWII veterans die every day.
Yesterday we lost one more, Major Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk.
Maj. Van Kirk was the navigator of the B-29 Enola Gay. He was the last surviving member of the first air crew to release a nuclear weapon in combat (one of only 2 crews to ever have).
There has been much debate in the 69 years since the Enola Gay left Tinian that August morning regarding the use of atomic weapons against the Japanese nation. No matter how you personally feel about that decision, there is no doubt that the men of the Enola Gay and the other flight crews and squadron personnel of the 509th Composite Group changed the world.
They were aviation pioneers that, with their service and sacrifice, helped put an end to WWII and in the same broad stroke ushered in the Nuclear Age, and subsequently the Cold War (with all that came with it, good and bad).
I had the pleasure of being around the National Museum of the Air Force when Maj. Van Kirk came to deliver a lecture in 2012. The buzz surrounding his visit was palpable. The transcript of his lecture is available on the NMUSAF website, and is definitely worth the read, as is the biography that was published around the same time called My True Course written by Suzanne Simon Dietz.
It seems as a society we have been swept away in all that the modern age has to offer and more and more we seem to take for granted the men and women of the “Greatest Generation.” Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that we listen to and catalog all of the stories and all of the hard earned lessons that we can from these men and women before it’s too late.
As I was sitting down to write today, I did see a piece of news that brings me hope: The restoration specialists at the National Air and Space Museum have completed another milestone in their restoration of the HE-219 Uhu.
When completed, the Smithsonian’s HE-219 will be the only example of that airframe anywhere in the world. The fuselage and engines are already on display at the Udvar-Hazy center (I must confess that I cannot wait until the complete aircraft is on display, the Uhu has always been one of my favorites). This wonderfully eccentric night fighter will help to tell the story of the battles in the dark over Europe during the Allied air offensive against Nazi Germany. It is definitely one of those aircraft that catches people’s attention, and as such, it is wonderful to see it getting the TLC that it needs to make it whole again.
In the midst of reading about the sad news of Maj. Van Kirk, it gives me hope to know that there are many people all over the world working hard to preserve aviation history for generations to come. We may be losing the “Greatest Generation,” but with all of the hard work that countless people put in around the globe to resurrect the aircraft of their era we can rest assured that their legacy is going to live on in perpetuity. Through the aircraft (and other artifacts), we can connect with those that designed, flew, and maintained them, past, present, and future.
Until next time,
Clear skies and tailwinds.