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Lt.Col. John J. Kane, USAF (Ret.) – A Quiet Hero

By Peter D. Lennon, Federal Gov’t (Ret.), Granite Flight #53

February 1, 2021, marked the one-year anniversary of the passing, at age ninety-five, of one of only two World War II veterans left in Granite State Flight #53, Lt.Col. John J. Kane USAF, (Ret).  John was a colorful individual who always voted “nay” on any motion to adjourn because he never wanted to end the camaraderie of the monthly Daedalians meetings.

John was “genuinely one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet,” according to flight captain and Col. Kevin “Jaws” Grady, USAF (Ret).

A former flight captain, Dino Atsalis, said John was a “listener instead of a talker,” and that he was “always interested in and curious about what other people were thinking, especially when it concerned the generational differences among the younger and older Daedalians in our flight.”

John was modest about his combat experience, and rarely, if ever, shared war stories.

Dino said, “He also was a kind man, but he had a very dry sense of humor and a quiet aggressiveness.”

According to his wife Frances, John always rejected the idea that, somehow, the military made “killers” of its members.  He wholeheartedly embraced the idea that, in his own words, “The purpose of the military is to maintain peace.”

John was born in Chicago, Illinois on February 20, 1924, and his family moved to California when he was young.  He always was fascinated with aircraft and spent many hours at the local airport in Oakland, CA.

Enlisting as an aviation cadet in 1943, he graduated at age twenty from pilot training in Class 44-B at Spence Field, Moultrie, GA on February 8, 1944.  By November 25, 1944, he was in Italy flying the twin-engine P-38J Lightning fighter/bomber.

As a second lieutenant, John just wanted to do his part to defend our nation and to fulfil his dream of learning how to fly.  Yet, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for extraordinary achievement and heroism while flying against the enemy over Austria in February 1945.

The DFC citation said he demonstrated the “highest order of professional skill, heroism, leadership and devotion to duty throughout many combat missions against highly important and strategic enemy installations.” 

The citation continued that “Despite heavy enemy opposition encountered on these long and hazardous missions, together with severe and adverse weather conditions, (his) outstanding leadership, personal example and tactical skill have contributed materially to the defeat of the armed forces of the enemy.”

Just prior to earning the DFC, John had been promoted to first lieutenant for “having clearly demonstrated fitness for promotion by outstanding performance in actual combat.”

John flew fifty-one missions and almost three hundred combat flying hours in the Lightning, primarily escorting Allied bombers and strafing ground targets over enemy territory.  He belonged to the 96th Fighter Squadron of the 82nd Fighter Group based in Foggia, Italy.  It was said of the 82nd Fighter Group that “No air unit has done more towards beating down the Hun.”

Although praised for its overall performance, the fabled P-38 proved more difficult to fly and fight at higher altitudes in the cold temperatures over Europe. 

John never mentioned those challenges, and the Germans called it the “Fork-Tailed Devil” for its seemingly unique ability to surprise them with devastating, concentrated firepower.     

John also was awarded five Air Medals for meritorious achievement in aerial flight in sustained operational activities against the enemy in February-March 1945 or other acts of merit, and six Bronze Service Stars for participation in the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign.

Since he was already a first lieutenant at the end of WWII, John turned down an appointment to West Point to stay in the Army Air Corps/Air Force.  As a captain, he was profiled in the Saturday Evening Post in 1952 as a high-altitude, jet fighter interceptor pilot tasked with defending the Continental United States (CONUS) from Soviet bomber raids.

He was described as a “stubby, wisecracking jet-fighter pilot” who flew the F-94 Starfire, the armed interceptor version of the T-33 jet trainer.  It was a first-generation jet aircraft for the Air Force and an all-weather, day/night platform.

The Post article continued: “All-weather work takes experienced men and calls for the best you can get.  They’re the cream of the pilot crop and the best instrument flyers in combat.”

John spent much of the 1950’s in the air defense and flight safety arenas.  He moved around five different installations, including Newfoundland and Greenland, but his greatest triumph was meeting Miss Frances L. McCarthy when both were assigned to Stewart Air Force Base, NY.

John had always been at the pointy end of the spear in air defense, but Frances, a pioneering woman in the rapidly developing computer sector, was working on the brains of the entire operation.  These were the sophisticated computers that processed and disseminated radar detection information that would accurately vector interceptors to their targets.

Frances spent four years with Bell Telephone Laboratories working on what was then an almost revolutionary air defense network known as the “Semi-Automatic Ground Environment,” or SAGE.

The Kanes married in 1960, and Frances spent the next thirteen years as an Air Force spouse, experiencing life in Wisconsin, where their son John Jr., or “Jay,” was born, in New Jersey while John was at Ton Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, and on bases in Oklahoma, New Mexico, The Philippines, and Hawaii.

As a major, John was awarded two Bronze Stars for heroism in three months during his year-long tour in Vietnam in 1963-64. 

Each citation praised him for exposing himself “to extreme personal danger by volunteering to enter an area known to be strongly occupied by hostile forces in order to obtain vital information to aid in determining the cause of an aircraft crash.” The citations continued that “undaunted by harassing enemy gun fire, steep and rugged terrain, and extremely high temperatures and humidity, Major Kane tenaciously pursued his task….”

Promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1965, John closed out his Air Force career as the commander of the 604th Direct Air Support Squadron, and then of the 22nd Tactical Air Support Squadron. Both units provided Air Force personnel to coordinate flight operations providing close air support bombing missions to Army ground units.

By the time he retired in 1973, John was a command pilot and had amassed more than five thousand flying hours in eleven different aircraft: the P-38, P-40 and P-51 fighters, the C-47 cargo aircraft, the F-80, F-82, F-86, F-94, F-102 jet fighters, the O-2A light observation aircraft, and the T-33 jet trainer.

He was a graduate of the Air Force Command & Staff College, the Aircraft Accident Investigator Course at the University of Southern California, the USAF Instrument Instruction School, and other training schools.  John learned the Vietnamese language at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute.

In his more than thrity years in uniform, John was assigned to at least sixteen different air bases throughout the United States, and in Korea, Okinawa, Newfoundland, Greenland, and Vietnam.

He also was awarded three Air Force Commendation Medals.

After moving to New Hampshire in 1976 with his family, John became a stalwart Daedalian and was Flight Captain of Granite State Flight #53 in 1991-1993.  A member for more than fifty years, he first joined the Order in 1969 in The Jungle Flight #23 at Clark Air Force Base, The Philippines.

He continued his public service after the Air Force by representing Exeter for ten years in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.  He was recognized as an independent thinker, and he served on the Resources, Recreation & Development Committee, and on the Appropriations Committee.

John also belonged to the Air Force Association and the Retired Officers Association.

Although he probably would deny it, John Kane exemplified the “Greatest Generation” that won World War II and personified the brave Airmen, both men and women, who created the Air Force that exists today.

Frances asked that “An Officer and a Gentleman” be inscribed on his gravestone.

He was all that, and more, and he is fondly remembered and sorely missed by every member of Granite State Flight #53.

To keep John’s camaraderie and presence alive, one of the members always votes “nay” on the motion to adjourn any of Flight #53’s gatherings.