Theodore "Dutch" VanKirk died of natural causes Wednesday at the Park Springs Retirement Community in Stone Mountain, Georgia where he lived, his son said. He was 93.
At the age of 24, VanKirk was a navigator on the Enola Gay - the B29 Superfortress that dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The bomb exploded at 8:15 a.m., killing 140,000 people - around half the population of the southern Japanese port city. Some 70,000 people were killed instantly.
It was the first time in history an atomic bomb was used in combat.
Three days later "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki, killing an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 people.
After the two bombings, and the Soviet Union's declaration of war, Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, bringing an end to World War II.
Where 'Hiroshima had been'
VanKirk was teamed with pilot Paul Tibbets and bombardier Tom Ferebee as part of the Enola Gay's 12-man crew. He helped guide the plane over Hiroshima and dropped the 9,000-pound (4,080-kilogram) bomb on the city while many of its residents were still sleeping or just starting their day.
"The plane jumped and made a sound like sheet metal snapping" after the explosion, VanKirk told the New York Times in an interview on the 50th anniversary of the bombing.
"Shortly after the second wave, we turned to where we could look out and see the cloud, where the city of Hiroshima had been," he said. "The entire city was covered with smoke and dust and dirt. I describe it looking like a pot of black, boiling tar. You could see some fires burning on the edge of the city."
The use of the atomic bomb by the United States - to date the only country to ever do so in combat - has been a subject of debate since that destructive morning nearly 70 years ago.
VanKirk has said the weapon brought him "a sense of relief" because it spelled an end to the war, thus sparing the US from a land invasion that would likely have cost many American lives.
However, historians remain at odds over whether the atomic bomb really did bring World War II to an early close, rather than, for instance, the Soviets' declaration of war on Japan.
The atomic bomb survivors, known as "hibushka," oppose both the military and civilian use of nuclear technology, citing the enormous loss of life in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, including the tens of thousands who later died from radiation sickness or cancer.
Wary of war
VanKirk said that despite his belief that the atomic bomb saved US and Japanese lives, it made him wary of war.
"The whole World War II experience shows that wars don't settle anything. And atomic weapons don't settle anything," he told the Associated Press news agency in a 2005 interview. "I personally think there shouldn't be any atomic bombs in the world - I'd like to see them all abolished."
"But if anyone has one," he added. "I want to have one more than my enemy."
A year after the war came to a close, VanKirk left the military. He went on to study chemical engineering before joining DuPont, where he worked until 1985.
dr/hc (AP, AFP, Reuters)