Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan World War II veterans Jim Starnes, 91, left, and Dutch Van Kirk, 91, right, both of Stone Mountain speak to a group of students from Wesleyan School in Norcross on Thursday. Starnes of the U.S. Navy served on the USS Boise and USS Missouri. Van Kirk of the Army Air Force served as the navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped "Little Boy" an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan.
NORCROSS -- Almost 70 years ago, as Capt. Dutch Van Kirk boarded the historic bomber Enola Gay, his thoughts drifted back to a conversation he'd had with a superior officer months earlier.
It was the military official who formally asked Van Kirk to navigate the Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft on Aug. 6, 1945, in a mission he was told would likely result "in a swift ending to the war."
"I was told that we would not survive the blast unless we got 11 miles away from the explosion," said Van Kirk, now 91, speaking to a group of students at Wesleyan School on Thursday morning as part of a special history lesson.
Hundreds of young people listened, rapt with attention to the tale of Van Kirk, the last surviving man among 11 other Enola Gay crew members, who dropped a 10,000-pound atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It was a key military maneuver during the final stages of World War II.
A man who helped organize the ceremony on Sept. 2, 1945, at which the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allied Powers also spoke to Wesleyan students on Thursday morning.
Aboard the USS Missouri, Atlanta native and U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Jim Starnes was also responsible for greeting the Japanese delegation as they came aboard. "It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life," Starnes, 91, said. "It was over, we had survived and we had won."
In addition to playing a key role in the historic ceremony, Starnes was aboard the USS Boise in October 1942 during the Battle of Cape Esperance, a key naval mission that was part of the Battle of Guadalcanal.
While Starnes was aboard, the Boise "picked up the Japanese fleet on this new device known as radar."
After tracking the fleet, "she was hit by Japanese cruiser fire," and many crew members died on the U.S. Navy Brooklyn-class light cruiser.
Added Starnes: "Our ship was so badly damaged we had to withdraw from the battle."
Starnes told the students Thursday morning that history is a valuable tool. "It's so important that we never forget what happened," he said. "There is much to be learned from the past."
Wesleyan School history teacher Dennis Stromie agreed.
"Today was such a great opportunity for students to hear history from the primary source, from people who were actually there," Stromie said. "How cool is it that the guy who was in charge of the surrender ceremony on the Missouri, or the man who was the navigator for the Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, were able to connect with our students this morning?"
Pretty cool, said student Grayson Blount.
"There's not many World War II veterans left, but to find veterans that played such a big role ... that's incredible," Blount said.
Veterans of World War II are indeed hard to come by, but surviving crew members from the Enola Gay number only one: Van Kirk.
He was 24 years old when he flew his 59th mission in a B-29 armed with an atomic weapon. Van Kirk's charge was to keep the plane on course, as they approached Hiroshima and later, as they flew at top speed away from a 40,000-foot mushroom cloud.
"We trained to make sure we could make it more than 11 miles away from the explosion," Van Kirk recounted Thursday morning. "Otherwise, we never would have made it back."
Added Van Kirk: "When we dropped that bomb, we ran away as fast as we possibly could, and we managed to put 12 miles between us and the bomb."
The explosive device, code-named "Little Boy," caused unprecedented destruction. After clearing the blast radius, the Enola Gay circled back toward Hiroshima. Van Kirk described what remained of the city as "being covered in what looked like boiling, black oil."
It was only weeks later that Starnes organized the ceremony ratifying surrender of the Japanese forces.
Following the hourlong speech by both veterans, Stromie beamed as he thanked them for coming to talk at the school.
"Hopefully these students understand just how fortunate they were this morning to hear from these gentlemen firsthand."