On June 6, 1944, as 160,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France to fight the Nazis, Richard Kirkland was lying on a cot in the Dutch East Indies, listening to reports of the battle on the Armed Forces Radio on headphones strung through the top of his four-man tent.
The 9,000 soldiers lost on “D-Day” left those on United States soil “horrified” – but the bombs and blood and air strikes were something the 21-year-old from California and his comrades in the East Pacific saw each day, from the time they woke up until the time they dragged their ragged bodies back to sleep.
While the battle may have strengthened their resolve, the men were already part of fighter units dog fighting Japanese Zeros, attacking enemy installations and ships and flying escorts for bombers. Landing on islands, and watching buddies blown away, was happening across Asia, too, though many back home hadn’t realized it.
“We were doing the same thing, in essence,” said Kirkland, who flew 103 combat missions during that war.
At 89, Kirkland is one of the last World War II veterans still able to recall the battle many would later credit with shortening the Soviet fight against Germany from the Eastern Front.
And as his former comrades die at a rate of about 740 per day, the Vienna resident of nearly 40 years, who also served in Korea, is willing to bet he’s the only one still writing about it.
In time for the 68th anniversary of “D-Day,” Kirkland is celebrating the June 1 release of his fifth book, “Wide Place in the Road,” a historic fiction novel that spans the Great Depression through the end of World War II.
With a grin creeping up to the creases around the blues of his eyes, though, he’ll tell you his first fiction novel is all but identical to his four other works of non-fiction: true stories from his childhood in the Tehachapi Mountains to the flaming wings of planes along the coast of Japans – the only difference is the characters have different names. (Dealing with personalities so intimately this time around, he says, was too tricky to keep the non-fiction label; he decided to change the names of his friends and family, with the exception of famous war figures).
“I lived much of this story so after years went by and the bad memories faded, I realized it had to be told. But only someone who lived it could write it — and I may be the only one left to do it," he said.
In fact, “Jessie,” the young hero whose heartache, love and loss brings readers through the “Greatest Generation,” sounds a lot like Kirkland himself.
Kirkland, like Jessie, joined the Army Air Corps at the outbreak of World War II, serving in the famous “Flying Knights” Fighter Squadron with Maj. Dick Bong, who Kirkland calls “America’s all-time ace of aces.”
“He still is,” Kirkland says.
Beyond the personal stories that became part of the novel's storyline, Kirkland has kept many of the artifacts mentioned in the book: in the basement of the quiet ranch he's lived in since 1974, he's built a museum of artifacts that span nearly 90 years, from 1923 through today.
They overflow from display cases, drawers, the walls. His uniforms hang above old combat boots. A Japanese flag, snatched by Kirkland from a battlefield, hangs behind a pair of Japanese fighter gloves pulled from a day's wreckage. His pilot cap, marked with tape for each of the missions he flew, has already been promised to the Smithsonian Institution, whose publishing house, Smithsonian Press, carries a number of his books.
Hundreds of items — Kirkland's lost count — are tucked into drawers, behind glass or in frames, and each of them has a story. It’s usually occasions like D-Day, though, that prompt people to listen.
Check Patch again this week as we continue to explore Kirkland's long career as a fighter pilot — including a video tour of Kirkland’s basement museum.
For more on Kirkland's new novel, click here.
This article has been updated.