Theodore "Dutch" VanKirk
Van Kirk (left) with fellow Enola Gay squadron members Wikipedia

Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, the last surviving member of the US bomber crew "Enola Gay" which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, has died aged 93.

Van Kirk, 24 at the time of the bombing on Monday August 6, 1945 at the final days of World War II, said he never regretted being part of an operation which killed an estimated 220,000 people because it saved many more lives. A second bomb destroyed Nagasaki on 9 August. Emperor Hirohito surrendered on behalf of the Japanese on 14 August.

Do I regret what we did that day? No, sir, I do not
- Theodore "Dutch" VanKirk

"Do I regret what we did that day? No, sir, I do not," Van Kirk told The Mirror in a 2010 interview. "I have never apologised for what we did to Hiroshima and I never will. Our mission was to end the Second World War, simple as that. If we had not dropped that bomb, there is no way the Japanese would have surrendered. We would have had to invade the country and the death toll would have been truly unimaginable."

1945 Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Smoke billows 20,000 feet above Hiroshima following the explosion of the first atomic bomb to be used in warfare REUTERS/Ho New

Until relatively recently, most military historians agreed with Van Kirk's analysis. However recently it has been suggested that Japan would have surrendered anyway. With its allies the Germans surrendering on 7 May and Japan itself devastated by bombing raids, on 8 August Russia declared war and invaded Japan-occupied Manchuria in China.

Although unrepentant until the end, Van Kirk described visiting Nagasaki a few weeks after the bombing and being shocked by what he saw.

"The destruction was much worse than I had imagined," he said. "What really struck me was when I saw a Japanese soldier walking down the street, past all the flattened buildings. I imagined this man, fighting a war and then returning home to find his city destroyed. It was a very poignant moment."

After the war Van Kirk sold memorabilia from his wartime exploits and retired to Stone Mountain, Georgia, where he played golf and tended his garden. His wife died in 1995. Van Kirk's son Tom said he and his siblings felt fortunate to have had "Dutch" as a dad. "I know he was recognized as a war hero, but we just knew him as a great father," he told Associated Press.