Training and Beginnings of High Altitude Bombing

Missions from England

North Africa and the Return Home


Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk trained as an Army Air Forces B-17 [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber] navigator at Kelly Field, Texas, graduating on 1 April 1942. He was then assigned to the 97th Bombardment Group to an ill-tempered pilot prior to flying with then Major Paul Tibbets. The group first flew missions out of Iceland before arriving at their final English base at Polebrook. He outlines that they were among the first B-17s to arrive and that it was during the initial stages of the American high-altitude bombing campaign that was the brainchild of General Henry Arnold [Annotator's Note: USAAF General Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold]. They first flew a few low-altitude missions, but the dangers associated with doing so quickly caused them to abandon such flights. He flew on the second high-altitude mission and he describes how different the terrain appeared from an altitude of 22,000 feet. They had previously only flown no higher than 10,000 feet. He comments that they had no fighter escort; the British Spitfires did not have the range to accompany them all the way to their targets. He speaks highly of Tibbets, commenting that his efforts with training the airplane gunners on gun maintenance was particularly important in the early days of the aerial campaign. He describes himself and others as "guinea pigs" who were proving the viability of high-altitude bombing.


Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk continues his discussion of the early B-17 [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber] missions flown from England, commenting that during the first 12 to 14 missions he flew, his crew went through three aircraft. The planes had received sufficient damage to warrant flying another throughout this period. He describes that the first two combat missions were comparatively easy, it was the third that gave an indication of the dangers involved. He discusses the fact that the B-17s in those days only had a .50 caliber and .30 caliber machine gun in the nose, and that would prove to be insufficient to ward off German fighter aircraft. He recounts being assigned to the "Red Gremlin," side number 34444, and that that aircraft lasted through the war. He also describes a mission where he picked out the wrong target. It had been camouflaged by the Germans. He discusses the German fighter tactics and that his goal was to shoot them before they could shoot him but the speeds involved in head-on attacks meant that they had little time to shoot. He remembers that the one thing American pilots could do well was formation flying. Much of the other required skills, like high-altitude navigation and gunnery, had to be learned as they went. He discusses relations with the host nationals and that they got along well with the British. He tells stories of being in London when it was blacked out and offers an amusing anecdote about returning late from leave and having to fly a mission in his dress uniform. This incident was one of many that involved the trio of then-Major Paul Tibbets [Annotator's Note: Van Kirk's pilot], himself [Annotator's Note: Van Kirk's navigator], and Thomas Ferebee [Annotator's Note: Van Kirk's bombardier].


Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk discusses a series of events that led to his crew being assigned to North Africa. The initial flight was a short-notice transport for two generals from General Dwight Eisenhower's staff, including General Mark Clark. They flew the generals to Gibraltar so that they could meet with the French in order to convince them not to oppose the pending American invasion of North Africa. On this flight they carried some two to three million dollars in gold to pay the French. The return trip was marked by terrible weather. Van Kirk describes a British radio navigation system he calls "ODM" and recounts that in this instance it was providing erroneous information. About a week later, his crew flew back to Gibraltar, this time as part of a group of six B-17s [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber] transporting numerous general officers including General James Doolittle. He discusses a low-altitude transit necessitated by poor weather and an aircraft mishap that leads to Doolittle being assigned as the 12th Air Force commander. He had originally been designated as the deputy, but the principal was lost during the mishap. He goes on to outline a flight where his crew provided overwater navigation support for a group of Royal Air Force Spitfire fighter planes. He closes the interview with a brief discussion of the missions flown out of North Africa, his circuitous return to the United States, and his eventual assignment to the 509th Composite Group under the command of Colonel Paul Tibbets. [Annotator's Note: This group would go on to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on 6 August 1945]. He remarks that he, Tibbets, and bombardier Thomas Ferebee are "the luckiest guys in the world" since at any point along their Air Force careers they could have easily been killed.

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