James R. “Jim” Kirk was a courageous ball turret gunner who flew 27 combat missions in the B-17G “Flying Fortress” during World War II. After two semesters at the University of Michigan, Jim was drafted in March 1943. Following basic training, he chose to join the Air Corps so he could have “hot meals and a clean bed every night.” After completing training, Jim’s crew flew to Foggia, Italy to join the 96th Bomb Squadron, 2nd Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force. During the next two months, Jim’s crew bombed Axis targets in seven different countries. Notable missions included three bombing sorties against the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania, two sorties hitting oil installations near Blechhammer, Germany and a night bombing raid in support of the invasion of southern Europe. On 21 August 1944, Jim’s crew flew their final B-17G mission. Directly after their bombs fell on the Synthetic Oil and Rubber Works in Oswiecim, Poland, Jim’s B-17G, nicknamed “Silver Streak,” took extensive flak to its #2 engine. Slipping out of formation, three German Focke-Wulf 190 fighters attacked, shooting out their #3 engine and inflicting severe damage to the flight controls. All ten men bailed out over Hungary and were instantly surrounded by angry farmers with pitchforks and axes. A German officer then drove them to the Hungarian State Prison. Following interrogations and thirty days of solitary confinement, the Germans transferred Jim and the other enlisted men to Stalag Luft IV near Belgard, Poland. As a POW, Jim experienced deplorable conditions which worsened when the Germans forced the prisoners to march west as the Soviet Army approached from the east. In February 1945, during the coldest European winter in decades, Jim joined approximately 6,000 Allied prisoners on what later became known as “The Other Death March.” The men marched 600 miles in 86 days, sleeping in open fields or barns with only their original flying uniforms for warmth. With very little food, water or adequate shelter, the average prisoner lost a third of his body weight. Of the approximate 6,000 men, an estimated 1,500 died from disease, malnutrition or execution. In April 1945, the Soviet Army liberated Jim and some of the POWs, moving them to a camp further east. Because they were not permitted to leave and the U.S. Army was forbidden to enter the territory, Jim and two fellow soldiers decided to escape and head west toward the American lines. On 27 May 1945, Jim, who is six foot tall, reached the U.S. Army weighing in at just 98 pounds. He was then sent to France, followed by England and eventually returned to the states with 15,000 Americans on the HMS Queen Mary. Jim was home on leave when the Japanese surrendered. On 12 September 1945, he received an honorable discharge and then attended Ohio Wesleyan University courtesy of the G.I. Bill. In 1949, he graduated, married his wife, Virginia, and eventually moved to San Antonio, Texas where he worked as a sales manager for Texas Pharmacal. After 65 wonderful years of marriage, Jim and Virginia still reside in San Antonio where they enjoy spending time with their four children, twelve grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Years Honored: 2015
Aircraft/Specialty: B-17G Flying Fortress
Between June and August 1944, Jim flew 27 combat sorties as his crew's ball turret gunner, widely accepted as the B-17's most hazardous position. Experiencing a flak damaged engine over Poland, Jim's B-17G, dubbed "Silver Streak," battled three enemy Focke-Wulf 190s. The air combat was intense and Jim scored several direct hits through the cockpit of one of the German fighters. After losing another engine, "Silver Streak" struggled to remain airborne forcing the crew to abandoned the stricken bomber and spend the rest of the war as POWs.