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When talk turns to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, people tend to ask Theodore "Dutch" van Kirk one question: "What did you see?"

That would be natural, since van Kirk had an extraordinary vantage point from which to witness the dawn of atomic warfare. As the navigator aboard the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb, he was 5 miles up, over southeastern Japan, with a clear view of the mushroom cloud.In interviews last week, van Kirk talked about his role in the United States' most famous and controversial bombing run, as did the man who was his commanding officer, Paul Tibbets, then a lieutenant colonel and pilot of the Enola Gay.

What they remember is the bombing as a decisive act of war, their recollections unshaded by any doubts whether it was the right thing to do.

Both men said they believed that dropping the bomb saved lives by hastening the war's end. Moral objections raised in the 50 years since do not fit the situation that van Kirk or Tibbets said they experienced in World War II.

"No. 1, there is no morality in warfare - forget it," Tibbets, 80, said in an interview in New York. "No. 2, when you're fighting a war to win, you use every means at your disposal to do it."

The Enola Gay dropped the 8,900-pound bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy," over Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. Five and a half hours earlier, the B-29 had departed from Tinian, a small Pacific island captured by U.S. forces from the Japanese in June 1944.

When the 10-man crew had come out to the tarmac that night, they found the area around the bomber thronged with officers and scientists, the darkness repeatedly broken by photographers' flashbulbs and klieg lights.

Van Kirk, now 74, likened it to a Hollywood movie opening. And he tired of it quickly. The crew's adrenaline was up, he said. "You just wanted to get in the airplane and get going," he said.

Once aboard the plane, there was little talking. "My order to the crew was to stay off the intercom," Tibbets said.

By the time the Enola Gay reached Iwo Jima, the sun was coming up, a multihued daybreak that struck van Kirk as wonderfully beautiful.

When the bomb was released, it fell for 43 seconds.

When it exploded, a light filled the Enola Gay's cabin with an intensity that van Kirk likened to a "photographer's bulb going off." Tibbets said it lit up the sky and seemed to have a bluish hue.

"It's really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence," van Kirk said.

"Where was the morality in the bombing of Coventry, or the bombing of Dresden, or the Bataan death march, or the Rape of Nanking, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor? I believe that when you're in a war, a nation must have the courage to do what it must to win."