The 12 Americans who on Aug. 6, 1945, boarded the B-29 bomber with the name Enola Gay painted on its nose would forget little about that long day. They remembered staying up through the night and eating breakfast long before dawn. Theodore (Dutch) Van Kirk had pineapple fritters. "I love the damn things," Van Kirk, 84, says today from his home in Stone Mountain, Ga. "I'll never forget the pineapple damn fritters." The Enola Gay left Tinian, in the Marianas chain, at 2:45 a.m. and was scheduled to arrive over Hiroshima, a city at the south end of the Japanese island of Honshu, at 8:15 a.m.; the crew was 15 seconds later than planned. The plane then dropped a single bomb, weighing five tons. Says Van Kirk: "I was timing it with my watch. It was supposed to take 43 seconds, and we all concluded it had been a dud, because it took longer. Then it exploded." The pilot of the Enola Gay, Colonel Paul Tibbets, had put the plane into a 180˚ turn to the west and was getting away from the target as fast as he could. "All we saw," recalls Van Kirk, "was a bright flash."
On the ground, half a mile from where the bomb dropped, Michiko Yamaoka, then a 15-year-old student, saw the same flash. Today she describes it as like a burst of light from an unearthly photo shoot, big enough to cover the sky, "blue-yellow and very beautiful." Yamaoka was blown off her feet. When she came to, she had burns all over her body, and, she says, she could "hear people calling out for help and the crackle of fire coming from burning houses ... people moaning from pain, with eyes popped out and intestines coming out of their stomachs." As the Enola Gay turned south for the long ride home, Yamaoka and her mother headed for a military compound. On the B-29, Van Kirk remembers, "somebody said--and I thought so too--'This war is over.'"
Eight days later, it was. Ever since, there has been controversy over when the war would have ended had the bomb not been dropped on Hiroshima--a second was detonated over the city of Nagasaki on Aug. 9--and how many Japanese and Americans would have died before it did. But, plainly, the most terrible war ever known ended earlier than it would have because of the Enola Gay's mission. The bombs cost tens of thousands of lives--perhaps 120,000 were killed immediately in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with many more dying later from the effects of radiation--but they saved lives too. When he heard the news of Hiroshima, writer Paul Fussell, then a 21-year-old second lieutenant leading a rifle platoon in France and mentally preparing for the hell that an invasion of Japan was bound to be, thought, "We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all."