Blogger’s note, Feb. 17, 2018: Bill Kilpatrick, a man of singular character, intellect and experience, died this morning. When I first shared the news on Facebook earlier this morning I typed through a fog of tears, pausing to wipe them away before continuing with the post. The tears have evaporated. Now I’m just misty-eyed but remain eager for people to not only know more about Bill but to honor his memory.
I wrote this about Bill on my blog a little more than four years ago, when he was 89:
I’m using this post to pay tribute to an American hero and gentleman, an original named Bill Kilpatrick. I’m proud to call him a friend.
In the 129-year history of The News-Press has anybody else ever qualified as both, a hero who helped save the world from the Nazis and a courtly gentleman?
I think not. Bill is unique.
Several colleagues and I met with Bill the other day to discuss publishing four books he’s written in recent years. A photo of the group was posted on Facebook and numerous respectful and loving comments followed. About Bill. Not the rest of us.
More tribute needs to be paid to Bill, and in a forum that can be saved easier than Facebook posts and comments, which are wispy pieces of gossamer floating in cyberspace, here today and vanished into the ether in a few days. Maybe this blog will have a longer shelf life. I hope so.
First, what about this hero stuff?
Bill was a sergeant in the Army Air Forces and found himself in the midst of World War II, the biggest and deadliest conflict in world history, an unimaginable event where nothing less than the fate of civilization was at stake.
He was 19 at the time, an age where many of his future newspaper colleagues were concerned about drinking beer and passing freshman English. Bill served as a toggelier, or a bombardier, in a freezing cold, very noisy B-17 thousands of feet above Nazi Germany as Luftwaffe fighters chased them and murderous flak came rocketing off the ground to shoot them down.
But Bill experienced it. At 19. Try to imagine yourself in his place.
I have part of an official report of the Nov. 30, 1944 raid by the 350th Bomb Squadron, consisting of 12 aircraft. Its target was synthetic oil refineries near Merseberg, Germany.
From that report: “…. Staff sergeant William Kilpatrick, Jr. … flew as a member of the crew, arrived near the target at approximately 1300 hours and started the bomb run. The flak was very intense and very accurate. … William Kilpatrick, Jr. was hit in the left arm at exactly 1306 hours by a piece of flak, the impact of the missile knocking him from his seat in the nose of the aircraft, disconnecting his interphone and his oxygen.
“However, with what could be termed heroic determination, he crawled back to his position, connected its interphone and oxygen, and despite his broken arm and severe pain, proceeded to carry out his duty and drop the bombs at 1310 which was squadron bombing time. … Kilpatrick was given first aid immediately and during the journey homeward.”
Former News-Press colleague Roger Williams knows more about what happened on that B-17 and posted this on Facebook about how a bomb was stuck and how Bill, bleeding and certainly scared, reacted:
“Wounded in several places he crawled back and kicked the sucker out. That allowed the pilot to land the B-17 minus one engine back in England. From the tarmac where medics saved his life to the hospital 30 minutes away where the two men on each side of him died right off the bat and he recalls being deeply frightened – those men had been mortally wounded … and one had a sucking chest wound Bill could hear until it stopped.”
When that sucking sound stopped, it meant the man next to Bill had died.
Blogger’s note, Jan. 1, 2014: After Bill read the above description he sent Roger an email clarification, which was then forwarded to me: “A couple glitches … To wit, the need to kick out the hung-up bomb did not take place during the mission when I was hit by flak, nor was I wounded when called upon to do so. Said kicking was all part of the job. I know nothing can be done about the blog. …”
Well, something can be done. A clarification can be inserted.
Anyhow, back to the original blog. …
What was going on then in Europe is staggering in its scope.
The Merseburg raid where Bill was wounded was part of a massive beyond belief bombing campaign to destroy the Nazi war machine, specifically the oil production they needed for planes, tanks and trucks. On Nov. 30, 1944, Bill’s B-17 was one of 1,281 bombers and 972 fighters sent to southeast Germany.
Of that massive air armada, Bill’s plane was one of 539 sent to Merseburg, where 17 were lost, six damaged beyond repair and another 325 damaged.
The Eighth Air Force Historical Society website notes that 17 airmen were killed, 42 were wounded and another 295 were listed as missing. On one raid. On one day.
Bill, of course, survived but his wounds ended his war. He was eventually transported by ship across the Atlantic to a hospital on Staten Island and continued his recovery.
He became a magazine editor, Hollywood press agent and writer for The News-Press.
And he continues to live his life with courtly grace.
Roger added, “… he treats everybody with respect and a feisty wit. … unsentimental good cheer and the kind of honesty and affection you can’t buy. …”
When folks noticed Bill’s picture on Facebook the tributes tumbled forth.
Dick Schneider: “…. Dear, dear friend and a great mentor. They don’t make them any better and I was very lucky to learn from him. The best.”
Mike Cannington: “Father golf. A great gentleman.”
Pete Sisk: “Think the world of Bill.”
Brad Windsor: “One of the greats.”
I’ll add this: “A hero and gentleman.”
I’m glad you made it back from Merseburg, my friend.