By Maj. Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 16, 2011
KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The family of a late Kentucky Air National Guard pilot was presented with his posthumous Prisoner of War Medal in a ceremony today at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base.
Merlin R. "Bob" Kehrer was a first lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps who flew combat missions over Europe during World War II. His P-51 Mustang aircraft was shot down west of Stuttgart, Germany, on Feb. 24, 1944, and the young pilot was captured as a prisoner of war. For the next 14 months, Lieutenant Kehrer lived in captivity alongside other Allied POWs at Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany.
"Merlin Kehrer was an American hero in the traditional sense," said Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini, Kentucky's adjutant general, who presented the POW Medal to the pilot's children, Bob and Tom Kehrer and Bonnie Urbanski, before an audience of more than 50 Kentucky Guardsmen, friends and family in the Headquarters Building of the 123rd Airlift Wing.
"He took on a hazardous mission that required the best his generation had to offer. As a young lieutenant, he risked his life in the skies over Europe to save us all from a tyrant gone mad. He endured the most dire of human indignities as a prisoner of war, and yet he persevered. He survived.
"Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was that he came home and started a family. His children, Tom, Bob and Bonnie are here with us today."
General Tonini noted that Lieutenant Kehrer's dedication to service was so strong, he helped found the Kentucky Air National Guard following the war, earning a promotion to the rank of captain. It was in the service of the Kentucky Air Guard in 1951 that then-Capt. Kehrer was killed when his F-51 aircraft crashed near Leesburg, Va., while returning from a flight to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.
"I feel a deep sense of gratitude to this great aviator," General Tonini said. "Captain Kehrer died young, doing the very thing he loved so much -- flying for his country. I can tell you Captain Kehrer's legacy of service and sacrifice lives on today among our fighting men and women throughout the commonwealth. We live by the motto, 'Unbridled Service.' Captain Merlin Kehrer was the epitome of those two words."
One of Captain Kehrer's children, Tom, expressed his gratitude to the Kentucky Air Guard for recognizing the sacrifices of his father, a man who deeply enjoyed military service.
"I want to thank everybody in the 123rd (Airlift Wing)," said a visibly moved Tom Kehrer. "He loved it, he really loved it. I just wish I could have known more about him. God bless the 123rd, the American military and this beautiful country."
For someone who dedicated his adult life to military aviation, there's more than a little irony in the fact that Merlin R. "Bob" Kehrer had such a difficult time becoming a pilot.
His first term of military service came in 1937, when he joined a ground unit -- the Kentucky National Guard's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 149th Infantry Regiment -- while still a sophomore at Male High School in Louisville. He served with the Guard until July 21, 1939.
After the outbreak of World War II in Europe in the fall of 1939, the teenager attempted to join the U.S. Army Air Corps but was told he was too young. Undeterred, he traveled to Canada, where the Royal Canadian Air Force signed him up for flight training and a commission. He received his pilot's badge on Nov. 21, 1941, and was posted to England, then Egypt and South Africa. On Nov. 15, 1943, he left the RCAF to finally join the U.S. Army Air Corps, which by then had deemed him old enough to serve.
As a P-51 pilot, Lieutenant Kehrer flew numerous combat missions over Europe before being shot down in enemy territory. During his 14 months of German captivity, he and his fellow prisoners received food rations of variable quality, at one point eating a single daily meal of turnip soup and perhaps a small potato, according to the lieutenant's log book. Life wasn't always austere, however. He wrote that prisoners received occasional morale parcels from the Red Cross and were permitted to sing Christmas carols.
As the war drew to a close, the Germans began demolishing infrastructure and finally withdrew from Stalag Luft 1 on April 30, 1945, leaving the prisoners to care for themselves. When a Russian Army reconnaissance team showed up the next day, the prisoners "cheered lustily ... (for) about half an hour solid," Lieutenant Kehrer wrote.
After the men heard a radio broadcast May 7 announcing that the war had officially ended, they celebrated by shooting off flares, according to the journal. "The Russians are very friendly to us," Lieutenant Kehrer added. "They are doing all they can to make our lot a happier one."
The journal also contained a sobering reminder of Nazi atrocities during the war.
"A French concentration camp, with dungeons full, was discovered near here a couple of days ago," Lieutenant Kehrer wrote May 7. "It contained about 2,000 Frenchmen, of which about 250 were dead and 300 were dying. They were in very bad shape. Some had been in dungeons for many months & were hardly recognizable as human beings."
American B-17s arrived May 12 to begin evacuating the camp, according to the log book, and Lieutenant Kehrer departed for France within 24 hours. Before returning to the United States, he spent an undetermined amount of time at Camp Lucky Strike, near the Normandy Coast, where he met Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe.
"I talked to him personally," Lieutenant Kehrer recalled. "He said he is damn proud of us.... He asked about my last mission, treatment & where I was from. He's a swell fellow! He said, 'I am just a G.I. Call me Ike.' "
Upon returning home from the war, the pilot flew the F-51 Mustang, a variation of the original P-51, for the newly formed Kentucky Air National Guard. He was piloting an F-51 on March 30, 1951, when the plane suffered a fatal crash in Virginia. His remains were brought home and interred at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville.
Captain Kehrer never received his Prisoner of War Medal because of an administrative oversight, officials said.