Commentary: Remember the lives of those who have gone before

“Never forget the importance of history. To know nothing of what happened before you took your place on earth, is to remain a child for ever and ever.”  – Unknown


On Memorial Day many headstones were before me. A church stood in front of a small cemetery and flowers were fixed upon and around the graves. A small flag caught my attention near a bronze grave on the ground. The age of the grave was apparent from a green color corroding throughout the metal.  I asked my mom and grandma what the flag meant. They explained he was a relative. He was in the army air corps in WWII, and was killed in action.

The name on grave read:  C NEIL KIRKPATRICK.

I felt a longing to know what happened. I felt a connection to a person I didn’t even know, a future life that could have been, but never was.

Sixteen million Americans served in WWII and many died while serving their country, the number totaled 450,670. They made a sacrifice that cannot be comprehended by giving their own lives for others. For each life, there is a unique story. Some stories we know, but others we will never hear. Many families felt the loss of a loved one, and the Kirkpatrick family was one of them.

Neil Kirkpatrick was the only child of Orel and Lois Kirkpatrick, born on April 17, 1921. Kirkpatrick graduated from Cainsville High School in Missouri.  Later he moved to a farm in Decatur, Iowa. He volunteered to join the army air corps to be a mechanic.  He enlisted on Sept. 8, 1942, and went to basic and flight training.

“I can remember the uniform he wore,” Wilbur Booth said.

Booth remembers seeing him on occasion. He remembers the ’34 Ford he drove and going fishing together. There was an 11-year age difference between the two cousins.

The following is the squadron Kirkpatrick was a part of:

  • 8th Air force, 1st Wing
  • 91st Bombardment Group
  • 324th Bomb Squadron
  • 1st Division

Kirkpatrick rose to the rank of staff sergeant.  At this rank he earned $96 a month base pay.  He was sent to Europe in October 1943.  Over time, he switched jobs and became a gunner in a B-17 bomber.  The B-17 he was assigned to was named ‘The Wolf.”

According to the manufacturer, Boeing, the B-17 had a top speed of 287 mph and a weight of 65,000 lbs.  It could carry 9,600 lbs. of bombs and at least nine machine guns.  All of its armament earned it the nickname ‘The Flying Fortress.”

According to the article “Life and Death Aboard a B-17, 1944,” the tour of duty for a crewman before 1944 was 25 missions. It was estimated that a crewman had a one in four chance to make it all the way to 25. (“Life and Death Aboard a B-17, 1944,” EyeWitness to History.

The 91st Bomber Group Kirkpatrick was a member of lost a total of 197 aircraft in 340 missions during the war.  The 197 aircraft loss was the highest number of losses out of all the 8th Air Force bomb groups according to the 91st Bomb Group website.

Kirkpatrick flew from late 1943 to early February 1944. He was listed as a waist gunner.  He went back to the United States before his last mission. He went to Seattle where he was engaged to a woman whose name has been lost in history. They were to be married when he got back.

His last mission was on February 4, 1944.  It was his 16th or 18th mission; he had completed over half of his missions.

The crew he flew with on his last mission was the following:

  • Fewer E. McGee, Pilot, from Massachusetts
  • Max W. Sweyer, Co-Pilot, Ohio
  • Donald J. Vandervelden, Navigator, Washington
  • Edward L. Bauer, Nosegunner, Pennsylvania
  • Richard R. Bodine, Tail Gunner, Pennsylvania
  • William E. Graham, Engineer, New York
  • Frank T. Kaschok, Asst. Engineer, Pennsylvania
  • Walter E. Getsey, Radio Operator, Ohio
  • Thomas A. McMenamin, Asst. Radio Operator, Michigan

The plane was flying to Frankfurt, Germany, and was hit by flak (bursting shells from antiaircraft artillery) several times.  They tried to return to base in England, but it was impossible. So they tried to head for France.  After that they were hit by more flak in the Rhur Valley. The Missing Air Crew Report said the plane became un-flyable from all the damage.  Kirkpatrick was injured by flak.  From the accounts in the accident report, Kirkpatrick was thrown out with a parachute, in fact, the whole crew was able to bail out before the plane hit the ground.  It was not clear exactly what happened to him after this.

“It was unknown whether he died of his injuries or from mistreatment after landing,” said co-pilot Max Sweyer.

He later said the Germans reported that he was dead when they found him. Everybody else in the crew became POWs.  The Radio Operator Walter Getsey would die as a POW and the rest of the crew survived the war.

Kirkpatrick’s remains were returned after the war.  His family chose to bring him back home rather than leave him in Europe.  According to family, it took his mother, Lois, years to get over his death. The money the military gave them after his death was never touched, and his family name died with him.

I continue to look for more information about him. There are many things I will never know. I can only find pieces to this mystery, but each piece gets me closer to seeing who he really was.

He left a passion for WWII on my heart, and I want to know more about him and those who fought beside him.  History is something that should never be ignored, it should be learned from. We can learn so many things from veterans who put their lives on the line for their country.  Also we can never forget the sacrifice men like Kirkpatrick, who was only 22, made. Because of them, we are free today.

Josh Booth

About the Author Josh Booth

I am Josh Booth from Cainsville, Mo. I am a freshman and a science and agricultural journalism major. I want to emphasize photojournalism and pursue a minor in history. Agriculture has always been a part of my life, and I wish to continue with it. I want to tell the story of the people living the agricultural life, and address the misconceptions that many have about agriculture. In addition to my interest in photography, I really enjoy learning about history. The more you learn about the past, the better you can make the future.