Dad passed away over three years ago after an extended battle over several years with degenerative emphysema. He endured that illness silently, gracefully, and with tremendous courage. Over the last three years, I have reflected deeply and dearly on a man I loved and continue to love and for whom I have great respect.
William Joseph Kilpatrick, Jr., the eldest of three sons of William J. Sr. and Louise (Fichter) Kilpatrick, was born in Randolph, IA, a farming community in the heart of the Midwest. The discipline, hard work, and dedication required to succeed as a farm family during the Depression no doubt instilled the virtues that dad exemplified throughout his life: honesty, integrity, perseverance, and patience. In addition, dad had a fun loving, witty, and engagingly charming side to his nature, best characterized by his write-up in the Howitzer as "a dash of whimsy." Good humor served him well during the tough times. He never grew bitter during his debilitating illness and always perked up when greeting people. Dad waxed poetic, gentle, and loving to the end.
After receiving 11 varsity sports letters and graduating valedictorian of his high school, a feat dad whimsically remarked, which "loses its glitter with only 18 in the class," dad assessed the relative merits of and attended several colleges. In his own words, he was a "rambling rube from the corn fields" for four years. He did finish junior college at Wentworth Military Academy and, in 1940, entered West Point. Dad called it "the big chalupa." The experience was alternately "uncomfortable" and "glorious" for dad, but I think the photos in the Howitzer, particularly the inset photo and his picture seated as chair of the Honor committee, capture the essence of this man. Dad was honored and inspired by West Point and that is evident in the delight manifested in his eyes. The experience ennobled him, although he claimed he "wouldn’t do it again for enormous sums of money."
Upon graduating in June 1943, he and many of his classmates were assigned to the Army Air Corps and several flew B-17s in Europe. Dad flew 58 missions in Europe, became a squadron commander, and was forced to abandon his plane over Yugoslavia in a mission over Ploesti, Rumania. The story of his privations, his negotiations with Slav guerillas, and his ultimate release, along with several dozen other U.S. military personnel, was written in Life magazine. The horror of witnessing good friends killed in action and the dutiful resignation with which dad carried out his wartime responsibilities are etched visibly in photos taken of him in Europe at that time. The memories of those events overlaid on the character-building formative years on the Iowa farm of the Depression forged his personality and demeanor. Likely because of that, he relied on his good humor and the whimsical side of his nature to see him through difficult challenges and terrifying memories.
A particularly telling aspect of dad’s character is the way in which he handled the many honors that came to him. As a result of his wartime and later service activities, dad was awarded eight medals, including the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Meritorious Service Medal. I never once heard him talk about those honors and only discovered what they were when going through his personal effects after he passed away. To him, the awards all came simply as a result of his fulfillment of duty, something to which integrity and honor bound him.
In 1946, during a staff assignment in Washington, DC, he met and married Patricia "Patti" DeMello. Together, they raised four children: three sons William "K.P." Ill (1947); Timothy (1951); and Peter (1956); and a daughter Kevyn (1953). His postwar career included graduate school at the University of Michigan, participation in the Berlin Airlift, five years on the Air University staff and faculty, and a nine-year stint in the Strategic Air Command.
Some of dad’s most trying days in the military were spent at Ellsworth AFB, where he dealt with the challenges associated with maintaining intercontinental ballistic missiles. His honesty and integrity forced him to make career-changing decisions, and his last six years in the military were spent in Air Training Command and with NATO in Izmir, Turkey.
In 1972, dad retired and settled near Phoenix, AZ. He pursued a real estate career, obtained a master’s degree in communications at Arizona State University, and settled into a southwest style of life. In 1980, he and Patti built a home in Bella Vista, AR, where they lived for four years. Patti died tragically in Arkansas, and dad moved to San Antonio in 1984. There, he met Georgene Hagen, a widow of a West Point classmate. In 1988, they married and enjoyed 10 loving, peaceful, and happy years together. Dad died 4 Feb 1998 after his battle with emphysema. His quiet example of courage was memorable to all who were observant enough to notice.
The Howitzer characterized dad with the following: "Take equal portions of good humor, and attractive personality, sprinkle with sophistication, flavor with a dash of whimsy, and mix thoroughly. Result, K.P."
Fletcher Veach, a West Point classmate, wrote of dad shortly after his death: "This vignette accurately describes facets of K.P.’s winning personality: his affable manner, charm, and wit. It doesn’t impart his integrity, determination, and grit. These attributes become evident upon knowing K.P. [He] did not damn the fate that had befallen him but faced adversity with an inner strength which brooked no self-pity. K.P. showed us how to die with grace and dignity, but more to the point, he showed us how to live." I can think of no more fitting tribute to dad than that; with that grace and dignity with which he faced death, he truly showed us how to be fully human.
- Class of 1943 June
- Ms. Georgene C. Kilpatrick