David Greer was nineteen years old when he returned to Maui, Hawaii with the 4th Marine Division. He had been evacuated from Iwo Jima at the conclusion of hostilities there, his sole war wound - at least physically - a cut on his finger from a can opener. Most of his friends were not so lucky. Of his company of roughly 250 Marines who landed in the invasion's initial assault wave, he and another Marine walked off the island under their own power. Two men.
He returned to the 4th's home away from home. Years later he remarked "It was a collection of empty tents and empty bunks. I was surrounded by strangers, the replacements coming in as we prepared for the invasion of Japan." Rearmed and refitted, he and his colleagues prepared for what many believed was a horrible task. I once asked him what his chances of survival were.
"I was fucked."
His combat experience and rank (he'd become a sergeant) meant he'd lead his platoon onto Japanese soil. It was an invasion and battle expected to take the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as a million. America steeled herself to lose the better part of a generation of young men. Japan faced extinction.
Years later, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum in Virginia, I stared at the aircraft that changed the course of my father's life. The restored Enola Gay stared back impassively, I one of millions who have gazed upon her. She wasn't as big as I expected. She was larger than life. The first atomic bomb had fallen from her bomb bay onto Hiroshima, Japan. Sadly, about 140,000 people died as a result.
Theodore "Dutch" VanKirk, Enola Gay's navigator on that awful mission, passed away yesterday at age 93. He was the last surviving crew member. He'd grown up in Northumberland, PA...not far from where my dad was born. His survival on the atomic bombing mission was hardly assured - in addition to enemy action no one knew whether the airplane would survive the shock waves generated by the new weapon. He worked for DuPont after the war, and became an advocate for abolishing atomic weapons with one caveat - "If anyone has them, we should have one more."
I claim no objectivity. My father, at nineteen having seen the violent deaths of hundreds of his friends, survived the vicious war in the Pacific because of men like Dutch VanKirk. Major VanKirk was willing to climb into a combat aircraft, navigate thousands of miles of open water and deliver a weapon that, while unspeakably horrible, avoided a battle that neither side would have won. A battle in which the man who became my father would likely have been killed.
My father lived a full, honorable life thanks to the men of the Enola Gay. They have now passed into history. May they never pass from the hearts of a grateful nation.