Just a bare handful of World War I veterans still celebrate November 11 as Armistice Day, the day their war to end all wars ended. By 1954 the Congress decreed that this day should honor the veterans of all wars, making it Veterans Day. Now by edict from Washington this day of honor floats around to give workers a three-day weekend. So we have come from a day of remembrance to a day of pre-Christmas shopping. But not all of us.
Lt. Col. Jimmy Kilbourne (USAF Ret.), local business man, pilot and entrepreneur reflects upon his experiences in Viet Nam in the months and days just prior to Veterans Day 1967. Of his 24 personal military decorations received in his 25 years of Air Force service, he is perhaps most proud of his Silver Star (with First Oak Leaf Cluster) awarded for gallantry in leading a large scale rescue effort in an attempt to save the survivors of three helicopters that had been shot down by hostile ground fire during their attempts to extract a downed pilot. The Silver Star is the third highest medal for heroism awarded by the Air Force.
Excerpts from the citation of this award, including the Air Force “Well Done” Flying Safety award for outstanding flying skill in the 602nd Fighter Squadron, tell a story of a pilot who would not give up his rescue efforts in spite of enemy fire which severely damaged his A-1E Skyraider aircraft. While flying at low altitude to locate the survivors, and to pinpoint enemy gun positions, he received several hits, damaging a gun pod and external fuel tank. With the enemy firing on the survivors, then-Major Kilbourne strafed the gun emplacements, receiving more hits, this time in vital areas––generator, propeller, internal fuel tank, hydraulic system, and worst of all, the engine. He was able to escort a successful rescue helicopter from the scene in spite of his plane being almost unflyable, returning to his base with navigation equipment inoperative. The landing, almost anticlimactic, was successful in spite of the heavy damage to his aircraft.
His first Silver Star was awarded in July 1967 under similar circumstances, supporting the rescue of a downed Navy pilot only 40 miles south of Hanoi. In this action Maj. Kilbourne had to contend with MIGs, SAMs (surface to air missiles), antiaircraft batteries, and small arms fire from ground personnel trying to capture the pilot.
And earlier in June he received his first Distinguished Flying Cross, to be followed by two more with Oak Leaf Cluster. The Bronze Star, and the Air Medal with an amazing Twelve Oak Leaf Clusters attest to both his flying abilities, and further, his intense desire to aid his fellow airmen. He also won five additional decorations for meritorious service.
Not all of Jimmy’s 160 combat missions during two tours of duty were strictly gun fights. He was decorated for his many resupply missions, including an emergency humanitarian flight to aid Father Hoa and his Swallows. Father Hoa, a Catholic priest, operated an armed enclave in the Delta, resisting nightly Viet Cong forays.
But the dry, sterile military words describing his awards fail to bring out the real feelings of both the rescue personnel and those stranded on the ground. Jimmy (his given name, not James, thank you) is the writer and editor of Escape and Evasion, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1973. His book, subtitled “17 True Stories of Downed Pilots Who Made It Back” details rescues and escapes–in many wars including those mentioned in his citations.
Jimmy doesn’t dwell on these perilous flights, but he does remember the names of all his fellow pilots from those days––especially the friends he helped to rescue.
Putting the Viet Nam war behind him Jimmy has kept a firm grip on aviation matters, only slightly loosening it for a foray into speech writing for the Air Force and later for the-then FAA Administrator T. Allan Mc Artor. After a stint as charter pilot he now operates a unique one-on-one flight training school, advancing pilots to the Commercial License and Instrument Ratings. This activity, plus brokering aircraft , would seem to take all of Jimmy’s time, except that he has now become an auctioneer, Graduate Gemologist, and jewelry appraiser!
It has been difficult to distill Jimmy Kilbourne, more difficult to put his life’s experiences into mere words that tell all of his story. His parting comment: “Perhaps we ought to call today ‘Remembrance Day’ instead of Veterans’ Day; that way we would remember all our veterans as Canada does.”
[ interview of LtCol. Jimmie Kilbourne, Col. USAF Ret. by Robert Noyer 11/1997]