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Kentucky National Guard Memorial

Honoring Their Sacrifice

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Kehrer, Merlin R. (P2, C3, L7)

Kehrer Capt Merlin RobertCaptain Merlin Robert “Bob”. Kehrer, 29, of Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky, perished in the crash of his F-51 “Mustang” near Leesburg, Virginia, on 30 March 1951, while he was returning to Louisville from Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. Kehrer was serving on federal active duty with his unit the 123rd Fighter Group. The 123rd Fighter Group of the Kentucky Air National Guard was called to federal service by President Truman in response to the Korean War. At this time the 123rd Fighter Group headquartered in Louisville were ordered to report to Godman Field, Fort Knox, Kentucky. While at Godman Field, the 123rd was redesignated the 123rd Fighter Bomber Wing (FBW) and tasked with training replacement pilots for the Korean War.

Kehrer graduated with the 1939 class at Male High School. While attending Male he was a member of the ROTC program from 1937 to 39, and of the Rifle team in 38 and 39.

On 10 April 1937, he became a member of the Kentucky National Guard’s, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 149th Infantry Regiment located at St. Matthews. He served with the Guard until 21 July 1939. With the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Bob Kehrer wanted to serve in the Army Air Corps as a pilot, he was told he was too young to serve. After being turned down by the U. S. Air Corps, he headed north to Canada where the Royal Air Force was looking for young Americans to help fill their ranks.

On 21 February 1941, Kehrer enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After flight training he received his Pilot's Flying Badge and Commission on 21 November 1941. He was posted overseas to England and then to Egypt and South Africa, and then back to England. On 15 November 1943, he left the RCAF to join the U. S. Army Air Corps.

Kehrer served as a First Lieutenant and P-51 “Mustang” pilot in the U. S. Army Air Corps flying combat missions over Europe during the war. His plane was shot down west of Stuttgart, Germany, on 24 February 1944, and the young officer was captured as a prisoner of war.

kehrer merlinFor the next 13 months, Lieutenant Kehrer lived as a POW alongside other allied prisoners of war at Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany. During their capture, the prisoners were served rations of variable quality, at one point eating just one meal per day of a turnip soup and perhaps a small potato, according to Lieutenant Kehrer’s POW log book. As the war drew to a close, the Germans began demolishing infrastructure and finally withdrew from Stalag Luft 1 on 30 April 1945, leaving the prisoners to care for themselves. American B-17s arrived 12 May to begin evacuating the camp, and Lieutenant Kehrer departed for France the following day. Before returning to the United States, he spent an undetermined amount of time at Camp Lucky Strike, near the Normandy Coast, where he met General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe.

Upon returning home from the war, Lieutenant Kehrer joined the newly organized Kentucky Air National Guard and continued to fly F-51s. He was promoted to the rank of Captain. He died on 30 March 1951, when his aircraft crashed near Leesburg, Virginia, while returning from a flight to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. His remains were brought back home and were interred in Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, on 4 April 1951 Section F, Site 311.

    kehrer headstonePrisoner of War Medal finally presented to family of Kentucky Air Guard pilot

    By Maj. Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs / Published April 18, 2011

    KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AFNS) -- The family of a late Kentucky Air National Guard pilot was presented with his Prisoner of War Medal in a ceremony here April 16.

    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 and held as a prisoner of war. For the next 13 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, Tom 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," the general said. "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. 

    Kehrer Collection006"Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was that he came home and started a family," General Tonini said. "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."

    Kehrer Collection022 - Copy (4)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.

    Kehrer Collection025 edited
    As a P-51 pilot, Lieutenant Kehrer flew numerous combat missions over Europe before being shot down in enemy territory. During his 13 months of captivity in Germany, 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 wrote. "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 and were hardly recognizable as human beings."

    Americans 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 in his log. "He said he is damn proud of us.... He asked about my last mission, treatment and 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.

    The POW Medal was authorized by Public Law 99-145 on Nov. 8, 1985, and may be awarded to any person serving with the U.S. armed forces who was taken prisoner and held captive after April 5, 1917.

kehrer family with pow medalA posthumous Prisoner of War Medal was presented to the sons and daughter of the late Capt. Merlin R. "Bob" Kehrer, a Kentucky Air National Guard pilot, during a ceremony April 16, 2011, at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky. Captain Kehrer was a young lieutenant and P-51 pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II when his plane was shot down over enemy territory Feb. 24, 1944. He spent 13 months in a German prisoner of war camp. (U.S. Air Force photo / Tech. Sgt. Dennis Flora)

 

 

 

 

Capt. Merlin Kehrer Archive Footage Prisoner of War Medal Recipient

Kentucky Air National Guard P-51 Mustang Pilot, footage of him on base, on flight line, Churchill Downs, and home life. Was awarded posthumously the Prisoner of War Medal for his service during WWII.  Video by Master Sgt. Phil Speck. 123d Airlift Wing Public Affairs.

Link to YouTube video: https://youtu.be/5R4qDSkuXbo

 

The Kentucky National Guard Memorial Fund, Inc., is a recognized 501(c)(3). EIN 26-3705273
 

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