STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. -- The military record of Theodore ''Dutch" Van Kirk gives only the slightest hint of his role in history: Fifty-eight missions in North Africa. One in the Pacific.
It was that single Pacific mission that forever altered the course of history.
Van Kirk, then 24, was the navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped ''Little Boy" -- the world's first atomic bomb -- over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
It was a perfect mission, Van Kirk recalls. Under cover of night, he guided the bomber nearly exactly as planned -- the plane was just 15 seconds behind schedule. The 9,000-pound bomb fell toward the city as the Enola Gay banked away, the crew hoping to escape with their lives.
Despite decades of controversy over whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb -- which left some 140,000 dead in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki three days later -- Van Kirk remains convinced it was necessary because it shortened the war and relieved the Allies of having to mount a land invasion that might have cost far more lives on both sides.
''I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run. There were a lot of lives saved. Most of the lives saved were Japanese," the 84-year-old said from his suburban Atlanta retirement home.
But Van Kirk's experience has 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 said. ''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, I want to have one more than my enemy."
The pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, selected Van Kirk as his navigator because of his extensive experience in North Africa. 13. It was a secret mission that Tibbets said would end the war.
''I thought, 'I've heard that before,' " Van Kirk recalled. ''As it turned out, he was pretty correct."
The mission: Fly 6 1/2 hours in a stripped-out bomber without guns or turrets from the Allied forward operating base at Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, to Hiroshima. Drop the Little Boy and run for your lives.
''The mission itself was very easy -- it went exactly according to plan," Van Kirk said.
The catch: It was not known whether the bomb would actually work, or if it did, whether the bomb's shock waves would rip the Enola Gay (named after Tibbets's mother) to pieces.
The crew thought about this after they unloaded the weapon. One thousand one, one thousand two, they counted. They got up to 43 seconds -- the time they were told the bomb would detonate -- and still heard nothing.
''I think everybody in the plane concluded it was a dud. It seemed a lot longer than 43 seconds," Van Kirk recalled. Then came a bright flash. Then a shock wave. Then another shock wave.
Three days after Hiroshima, Nagasaki was bombed. Six days after that, Japan surrendered.