Saturday, January 05, 2013

TFH 1/5: Brigadier General Kenneth N. Walker, USAAF

Kenneth Newton Walker was born on July 17, 1898 in Cerillos, New Mexico. He later lived in Denver, Colorado. Walker began his service to the United States when he enlisted in the United States Army at nineteen years old on December 15, 1917.

Walker was accepted into the fledgling United States Army Air Service and received a temporary commission as a Second Lieutenant. He did not serve overseas during World War I, but nonetheless was allowed to remain in the Army and received a permanent commission on July 1, 1920. As the Air Service became the Air Corps in 1926, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Walker was a key participant in developing the doctrine and tactics for combat aviation that would prove their worth during World War II.

In January 1941, now as a Major on the staff of the United States Army Air Forces' Air War Plans Division in Washington, DC,  he participated in detailed studies of the aerial combat tactics and strategies used by both the British Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. As with his earlier developmental work, this research and development was crucial to developing our own air warmaking capabilities. During 1941 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. With America's entry into World War II in December 1941, he was promoted to Colonel in February 1942 and continued in staff work until June of that year.

Walker received another rapid promotion to Brigadier General and was sent to the South Pacific to fight against the Japanese as the commander of the V Bomber Command, part of the Fifth Air Force on June 17, 1942. Throughout the early days of the New Guinea campaign, General Walker put the strategies and tactics he helped develop into practice. He flew repeated missions against the enemy to great effect. As a senior commander, Walker was not expected to command the missions in flight, and in fact was ordered to cease his combat flying, but he ignored these concerns and demonstrated time and time again that leadership is only from the front. He would not expect any of his flyers to execute a mission he wasn't willing to undertake himself.

On January 5, 1943 - 70 years ago today - V Bomber Command was assigned to attack Japanese resupply forces massed at Rabaul, New Britain. The forces that Walker had at Port Moresby were supposed to be augmented by additional planes from Australia, but foul weather prevented their sortie. Even though there were only six Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and six Consolidated B-24 Liberators available, a mere fraction of an adequate force, Walker led the planes into the air, pressed home the attack against ferocious opposition, and sank nine enemy ships at their moorings. For his audacity and courage above and beyond the normal call of duty, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (T-Z):

*WALKER, KENNETH N. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Brigadier General, U.S. Army Air Corps, Commander of V Bomber Command. Place and date: Rabaul, New Britain, 5 January 1943. Entered service at. Colorado. Birth: Cerrillos, N. Mex. G.O. No.: 13, 11 March 1943. Citation: For conspicuous leadership above and beyond the call of duty involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life. As commander of the 5th Bomber Command during the period from 5 September 1942, to 5 January 1943, Brig. Gen. Walker repeatedly accompanied his units on bombing missions deep into enemy-held territory. From the lessons personally gained under combat conditions, he developed a highly efficient technique for bombing when opposed by enemy fighter airplanes and by antiaircraft fire. On 5 January 1943, in the face of extremely heavy antiaircraft fire and determined opposition by enemy fighters, he led an effective daylight bombing attack against shipping in the harbor at Rabaul, New Britain, which resulted in direct hits on 9 enemy vessels. During this action his airplane was disabled and forced down by the attack of an overwhelming number of enemy fighters.

Rescue planes were sent out to search for Walker and other downed Americans. Neither his plane or his body were ever recovered. Brigadier General Kenneth N. Walker is the senior service member still listed as missing in action from the Second World War.

Four days after the mission that earned him the Medal of Honor and cost him his life, General Walker's command presence and courage during the Battle of Buna-Gona in late 1942 also saw him awarded the Army's second-highest award: the Distinguished Service Cross. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate a copy of his citation for that award.

General Walker also received the third-highest valor award - the Silver Star - for combat missions he flew over Port Moresby, New Guinea in July, 1942 (Military Times' Hall of Valor):

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Brigadier General (Air Corps) Kenneth Newton Walker (ASN: 0-12510), United States Army Air Forces, for gallantry in action while serving with the 5th Bombard Command, FIFTH Air Force, in action over Port Moresby, New Guinea, during July 1942. General Walker took part in four different missions over enemy territory, each time being subjected to heavy enemy fire from anti-aircraft and fighter planes. The large amount of first-hand information gained by General Walker has proved of inestimable value in the performance of his duties. His complete disregard for personal safety, above and beyond the call of duty, has proved highly stimulating to the morale of all Air Force personnel with whom he has come in contact. Such courage and gallantry are in keeping with the finest American traditions and are worthy of the highest commendation.

A cenotaph in General Walker's memory has been erected at Arlington National Cemetery and his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines.

In 1948, after the United States Air Force was spun off from the Army into their own service, the former Roswell Army Air Field in his home state was renamed Walker Air Force Base. The base, assigned to the Strategic Air Command, was closed in 1967. The Walker Aviation Museum is maintained at the site. Most of the base and its infrastructure are used for private enterprise today, and are known as the Roswell International Air Center.

V Bomber Command was inactivated in 1948. Today, the Fifth Air Force is the forward headquarters of the Pacific Air Forces and the air component of United States Forces Japan. They are located at Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo.

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