When guests enter Kenneth and Shirley Kirk’s home, their eyes go straight to a valance of American flags that stretches across the living room window.
A Christmas tree stays in the room all year and is decorated for Valentine’s Day, Easter and other holidays.
The nation will celebrate Veterans Day on Saturday, so, this week, the tree was decked out in red, white and blue. Shirley Kirk loves Old Glory, and she’s proud of her husband’s time in the military.
Kenneth Kirk, 94, served as a World War II bombardier and gunner. He spent part of his early 20s seated in the all-glass nose of a B-24 bomber nicknamed Mama’s Lil’ Angel.
From his vulnerable position, he had a bird’s-eye view, which wasn’t a good thing. Flak, or anti-aircraft fire, was so heavy at times “you could almost walk on it,” he said.
As bombardier, Kenneth Kirk released bombs. As a gunner, he fired machine guns at enemy planes.
That made him an enemy target.
“They shot at you with everything they had,” he said. “… It’s been a long time, and I’ve forgotten a lot of it. I wanted to.”
Kenneth Kirk, who grew up in the Hartford area, was stationed in England. He was among a crew of nine who flew 28 bombing missions, destroying bridges, factories and military installations in Germany between Oct. 28, 1944 and April 20,1945.
B-24 Liberators were not designed for crew comfort. The bombers were not pressurized or heated. Crews wore oxygen masks above 10,000 feet and were exposed to temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero.
Crew members’ heated jackets didn’t work most of the time. They were heavy, Kenneth Kirk said, but not heavy enough to keep out subzero temps for up to 10 hours at a stretch.
Besides unthinkable conditions inside the plane, it was worse outside. American bombers took lots of enemy anti-aircraft fire.
Mama’s Lil’ Angel was patched so many times it looked like an old pair of farmer’s overalls, Kenneth Kirk said.
He was 20 years old when he volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943. He served more than two years.
At 94, memories have waned, but if someone asks a few questions, they return.
Sitting in his lounge chair, Kenneth Kirk thumbs through an old pocket-sized diary he kept during the war.
Each mission is chronicled in those yellowed pages. For the most part, Kenneth Kirk wrote dates, targets, number and weight of bombs dropped, flak conditions, altitudes and temperatures.
On Dec. 19, 1944, he wrote: “Went on mission in south Germany. Bombed an intersection on a highway leading to the front lines.”
Mama’s Lil’ Angel dropped a dozen 500-pound bombs during a five-hour mission that day. Then, the plane was forced down in an English field.
About a month later, the crew set out on a mission west of Berlin, but experienced engine problems and aborted the run. Rather than return to base with bombs, they dropped their load in an area of Zuiderzee.
On March 5, 1945, Mama’s Lil’ Angel bombed a German oil refinery. “Flack was very intense and very accurate,” Kenneth Kirk wrote in his journal.
Two weeks later, the crew bombed a German staff headquarters near Berlin. A few days after that, they hit a tank factory in Hanover.
He has many photos of Mama’s Lil’ Angel and its crew, all of whom survived the war.
It’s a miracle, Kenneth Kirk said.
“We ran that old B-24 till gas just dripped out of it. Lord have mercy. It’s a wonder we didn’t all get killed,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that again for nothing.”
Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, [email protected]
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