Twice Escaped: The POW Story of P-47 Pilot Edward R. Kirkland

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. (ret.) Terrence Popravak, jr.
  • 142nd WG/Public Affairs

Today is April 9, National Former Prisoner of War (POW) Recognition Day in the United States.  It is the time we commemorate the service and sacrifice of members of our armed forces who were taken captive by enemy forces in conflict.  April 9 commemorates the surrender of our soldiers on Bataan to Imperial Japanese Army forces in 1942, the largest single surrender of American military forces in history.

Proclamation on National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, 2020

The 142d Wing has cause to commemorate on this day, as during World War II and the Korean War.  We carry 20 pilots and one member of the ground echelon as POW in WWII, and one pilot POW in the Korean War.  In the case of one of the former WWII POWs, 1st Lt. Edward R. Kirkland, his captivity 75 years ago last month was fortunately very brief due to his ability to improvise, adapt and overcome adversity.

Edward Romph Kirkland joined the Army Air Corps in Miami, Florida on April 1, 1942 with one year of college and “actor” as his occupation.  He underwent flight training to become a fighter pilot and also served as an instructor pilot.  He joined the 371st Fighter Group (as the 142d Wing was designated in World War II) at Dole/Tavaux Airfield (Y-7) in France on November 23, 1944, one of 17 replacement pilots who arrived in the group to replace the losses from the hard-fought campaign across Northwest Europe as well as to relieve some of the original unit members who had flown enough combat missions to complete a combat tour.  He was assigned to the group’s 406th Fighter Squadron and soon commenced combat flying.  He and the group made successive moves to other advanced landing grounds as the campaign inexorably drew to the German border and beyond.

On March 1, 1945 Kirkland and the group flew from Metz Airfield (Y-34), France and he was credited with an aerial victory over an enemy Me-109 fighter on that day.  A few weeks later, the group began concentrated combat operations from March 15-21, 1945 in support of General Patton’s Third Army as it approached the Rhine River.  German forces on the west bank of the Rhine made desperate efforts to cross the Rhine to the German interior and the 371st did its utmost to prevent that from happening.  The group’s outstanding efforts were recognized with award of the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC), known today as the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC), the highest level of award given to a American military unit.  For a detailed recount of the wing’s DUC action, see:

But the Rhine effort was costly, with four aircraft lost and 49 more damaged. Of the four aircraft, three pilots were killed and one captured, Edward Kirkland.  On March 18, 1945, 1st Lt. Kirkland flew a P-47D-30-RA, serial number 44-32961, as the leader for the squadron's fourth mission of the day (and his second mission that day leading his squadron), eight Thunderbolts  with an assigned target at Birkenfeld, Germany, between Trier and Kaiserslautern. 

While strafing some military transport vehicles on a road leading out of the town he was hit by anti-aircraft fire; his plane badly damaged, he was forced to bail out as his plane crashed into a field near Nohfelden, south of Birkenfeld.  Two other aircraft were damaged by flak but returned to base.  As he floated down in his parachute, irate civilians shot at him slightly wounding him in the neck.  When he hit the earth, the angry civilians attempted to hang him but he was rescued by German soldiers, taken to a German aid station where he was treated for his wounds for one day, and then taken to a POW camp. 

During the confusion of an air raid at night, he escaped but was soon recaptured by a German patrol.  Then another opportunity presented itself.  According to The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the ETO, "Utilizing the everlasting lure of the American cigarette, Kirkland knocked two guards' heads together as they were lighting them and made his second escape."  He managed to evade and soon joined up with one of General Patton's advancing spearheads, the 4th Armored Division.  He stayed with the 4th Armored a few days before making his way back to return to duty with the unit on March 27, 1945.  Although the acronym hadn’t been invented then, Lt. Kirkland put every element of Survival, Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training into effect in his successful return to friendly lines.

After the war, Kirkland went on to study law, was elected to the Florida House of Representatives and become a prominent defense attorney in Orlando, Florida.  At nearly age 70 he married his high school sweetheart, who wouldn’t marry him during the war.  Even though, he named his P-47 “Patty” after her and kept that love alive through the years.  Ever active, in 2010 he hit the silk again at age 87 going sky diving to scratch that off his “bucket list.”  He passed away in November, 2012 at the age of 89.

On this National Former POW Recognition Day 2020, we salute all those who served our country and sacrificed as prisoners of war.  And we remember Edward Kirkland and the others associated with the 142d Wing, as listed in the article at: