John A. Kirk III, 80, World War II ace pilot

March 04, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John A. Kirk III, a highly decorated World War II fighter ace whose 70 missions included shooting down an early Luftwaffe jet and on another occasion nursing his shot-up P-51D Mustang back to England, died of cancer Monday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The Towson resident was 80.

"Because most of the men in his group never made it home, he always said, `I've lived a free life.' And at the end, he faced his own death with great majesty," said Dr. Mark A. Lamos, his Baltimore internist, who shared an interest in flying radio-controlled airplanes.

"He was not the type of man who talked about his World War II days. He thought of himself as an ordinary man who had lived in extraordinary times, and this seems to be a common thread of people who participated in World War II."

Mr. Kirk was born in Rochester, Pa., and moved with his family in 1936 to a home near the old Municipal Stadium on East 33rd Street. His romance with aviation began as a 12-year-old when he and his father flew gasoline-powered model planes attached to wires.

He left City College in his junior year to enlist in the Army Air Forces in 1943. After completing pilot training, he was sent to England to join an Eighth Air Force fighter squadron at Duxford. Its mission was to escort B-17 Flying Fortress bombing runs into Germany.

Given the nickname Junior by veteran pilots, Mr. Kirk was 20 when he embarked on his first combat mission, flying a P-47 Thunderbolt. He scored a double kill, shooting down a Messerschmitt and a Focke-Wulf. By war's end, he had downed eight additional enemy aircraft.

He later was assigned a Rolls-Royce-powered P-51D Mustang that he named "Small Boy Here." He had its engine cowl painted in a distinctive checkerboard pattern.

On March 21, 1945, he came to the rescue of a B-17 pilot whose plane was under attack by a twin-engine German ME 262, the world's first jet fighter.

Mr. Kirk fired his 50-caliber machine guns and hit the plane's engine, which began to smoke.

"It slowed him down, and I started to gain," Mr. Kirk told The Sun in 1992. "He turned right and I fired again. I could see the sparks when the lead hit the aluminum. The pilot bailed out, and I flew right past him."

He spoke about it at the time of a reunion by telephone with Richard L. Roberts, the Nebraska pilot of the B-17 whose life and whose fellow crew members he had saved.

"I sure did appreciate it, John. I didn't know it was you at the time, and I didn't get a chance to thank you, but I sure will now -- for knocking that guy off us," Mr. Roberts told him.

"You're sure welcome. He won't bother you any more," said Mr. Kirk, a member of a select group of wartime pilots who destroyed German jets in combat.

"We were up against a competent enemy and weren't always the aces we thought we were," Mr. Kirk told Time-Life Books in an interview several years ago.

While attempting to destroy a train, Mr. Kirk's plane was hit with a 20 mm shell from a cannon that damaged his right wing and compass. He contemplated bailing out, then decided to try to reach France.

"I was in a spot. A busted-up aircraft, no compass, late in the day, separated from the rest of the group and still fairly deep in Germany," he said.

Limping along and trying to elude detection, he sighted the English Channel in the distance. Once he was on the ground at Duxford, a crew chief asked Mr. Kirk, then a captain, whether he had destroyed the target. The pilot wasn't sure.

"He was mad as hell and said, `You go out and get all that damage and I got to spend the whole night changing this wing, and you didn't even get anything,'" Mr. Kirk recalled.

Mr. Kirk was shot down twice, over France and Holland, making his way back to England each time with help from underground resistance fighters.

On Christmas Day 1944, he sent his worried mother in Baltimore a Western Union telegram: "Disregard Missing In Action Telegram. Am All Right. Shot Down Two Jerries. Happy New Year. Love, John Kirk."

"His fellow fliers thought he was lost and divided up all his stuff. When he got back to Duxford, he had to go around gathering up his possessions," said his wife of 56 years, the former Jean Douglas, a retired vice president of T. Rowe Price Group.

Mr. Kirk's decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal with 17 oak leaf clusters.

Though he never made it to senior year, Mr. Kirk was mailed his City College diploma while in the service. He returned to Baltimore after the war and studied industrial engineering on the GI Bill at the University of Maryland, earning his bachelor's degree in 1952.

He was an engineer at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant until he retired in the late 1980s.

Mr. Kirk continued to fly small aircraft occasionally and was an active member and former president of the Radio Control Modelers of Baltimore, whose Kirk Field in Parkton was named for him.

He was a 55-year member of Towson United Methodist Church.

Services are private.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Kirk is survived by two sons, John D. Kirk of Towson and Thomas A. Kirk of Sterling, Va.; a daughter, Mary E. Walton of Bel Air; a brother, James W. Kirk of Fallston; a sister, Dona K. Wylie of Crofton; and three grandchildren. Another daughter, Nancy Kirk Walker, died in 2000.

Sun staff writer William Patalon contributed to this article.

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