My featured guest this week holds the distinction of serving in two wars—World War II and the Korean War—as a member of the US Marine Corps. Tom Kirby, the oldest of seven children, grew up in Attleboro and came from an excellent lineage of men who served their country; his father and two brothers were all Marines.
He served his country from November 7, 1942, to February 9, 1946, as a gunner-dive bomber in the 3rd Marine Air Wing. He traveled to Parris Island in South Carolina for basic training and went from 150 pounds to a fighting-machine 180. Staff Sergeant Kirby was a member of the US Marine Air Corps’ MSB-33, which sank more of the Japanese fleet (aircraft carriers and battleships) than any other division in the South Pacific. He recalled a wonderful memory of the leadership of a gentleman named Leon Williamson, who became a commanding officer at age 29 and was later awarded the Navy Cross.
As I sat with him at Cape Cod Residences, Staff Sergeant Kirby said he never had any problems during his service because, “I always did what I was told.” His responsibilities included anti-sub warfare patrol from Midway to Guam. He shared a powerful memory that still moves him: “We were in port and I was coming down the plank. They were having a ceremony for the guys coming back from Iwo Jima. The band was playing. I looked over to my right and guys were coming down the plank in wheelchairs, stretchers and on crutches. To hear that music and see those guys…God bless ‘em.”
His first frightening experience came at age 18, when his plane was returning from patrol of the Atlantic. His plane had sprung an oil leak and the orders came to bail out. Staff Sergeant Kirby pointed out that if you didn’t jump properly, “The tail would get you.” Fortunately, the pilot was able to guide the plane to safety. He said his toughest memory was burial at sea. “It is a very emotional experience. Seeing the bodies in the bags. Very tough,” he said.
On being away for the holidays he said, “I got a lot of letters. When I was discharged, I found out that my mother saved every single one of my letters that I wrote home. The toughest part of the service was not being home enough.” When asked about entertainment overseas, he said “the shows were really swell,” adding with a laugh, “We used words like that back then. I actually got to dance with actress Beth Myers at an event for about three steps, before another guy grabbed me to cut in.”
Staff Sergeant Kirby shared another memory he will never forget: “We were marching for review in formation at Bogue Field. When you hear that Marine Corps Hymn and you got your rifle…that was really something. A very proud moment for me.”
Staff Sergeant Kirby had just a brief thought on the Korean War. “I hated it. I lost my brother-in-law,” was all he would say. One thing he still holds near and dear to his heart is the reunions for the 3rd Air Wing that he has attended and coordinated over the years in all parts of the country. “These reunions, well, they’re like second family to me. The one I coordinated on the Cape, we had over 200 people attend. In 1993 we had our 50th. Now, there aren’t many of us left.”
Staff Sergeant Kirby has never slowed down during the course of his 94 years. He got his pilot license in 1946, then went on to graduate from Fitchburg State College, where he was president of his fraternity (he was awarded The Cutler Award as Outstanding Senior Industrialist). He traveled to and taught in Cairo with his wife, Patricia. “I also hit a golf ball out of the world’s largest sand trap. The Sahara Desert,” he said with a good belly laugh. An educator over the years, he is especially proud of the impact he made when teaching children.
An avid golfer in his younger years, Staff Sergeant Kirby accepted my invitation to putt some balls on the green when the weather is a bit warmer. So, all my golf pro friends and administrators can email me and have the honor of playing host to a World War II and Korean War veteran.
When asked what he liked most about his military service he replied without hesitation, “Being a Marine.”
In life, one is so fortunate to meet a person that is filled with humility, is gracious and kind, and is a class act. Staff Sergeant Tom Kirby is one of those people.
Thank you for your service to our great country, Tom Kirby, USMC.