On the morning of Oct. 7, 1943, a powerful Northern Pacific locomotive trailing a coal tender and a long string of passenger and baggage cars rolled over the open countryside west of Coeur d'Alene.
The olive drab troop train bearing down on the city was a common sight during the war. This particular train had departed Portland the previous day bound for the East Coast where it would transfer its cargo to a military convoy headed across the North Atlantic to England. The cargo in question consisted of 1,000 men belonging to the 354th Fighter Group, a unit that had been preparing for overseas duty for nearly a year.
In one of its three squadrons was a budding 21-year-old fighter pilot from Boise, 1st Lt. James Kerley. Over half of the original 32 pilots in his squadron would be dead before the war's end or would be shrunken men - POWs weighing barely 100 pounds. The piercing, mournful cry of the steam whistle as the locomotive sped through Coeur d'Alene that beautiful fall day sounded the death knell for Kerley and many of the boys on board this train.
Memorial Day is traditionally a time to remember our war dead. By respecting this custom, we hold dear the gift of liberty that has been handed to us by fellow Americans. The story of Kerley is typical of the men and women who have died serving our country.
James Walter Kerley, or Wally, as his little sister Joanne called him, spent his formative years in Boise. Born on Jan. 11, 1922, to James and Mary Louise Kerley, his parents divorced when he was a boy. Wally's mother later married Weber Appel, an early Idaho aviation pioneer. At Webb's Flying Service, Appel taught his stepson to fly airplanes.
Wally graduated from Boise High School in 1940 as a three-sport letterman (during his senior year, the 150-pound "flying guard" missed several football games after breaking his nose). At Boise Junior College, Wally concentrated on a future in engineering until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor drew him into the Army Air Corps.
By the fall of 1942 the aviation cadet had earned his wings and been commission as a 2nd lieutenant. While receiving additional training in fighter aircraft at Portland Army Air Base, Kerley fell in love with Elinor Casey. By the time he left for overseas duty, they were engaged.
On Dec. 1, 1943, Lt. Kerley flew on the first mission from England that involved the P-51 Mustang fighter plane. In a V-mail to his mother written several days later he said, "Please don't worry about me. I'm perfectly OK and feel lucky. ... I get a letter from (Elinor) just about every day." On Dec. 17, 1943, he sent home what would be his last letter concluding, "Well, Mom, I have a lot of exciting things to tell you but I'll wait until I get home. All my love, Wally"
Kerley's fifth mission occurred three days later, when he helped protect hundreds of heavy bombers attacking Bremen, Germany. Near the enemy coastline his P-51 developed mechanical problems and fell away from the squadron, disappearing into the haze below. Later that afternoon, his body washed ashore on Norderney Island in the North Sea. At the end of December the family received a telegram from the War Department notifying them that Kerley was missing in action.
In the weeks that followed, Mrs. Appel lost her appetite. Only through the attentive care and support of Elinor Casey was she able to bear her anxiety. On March 12, 1944, a telegram arrived stating Kerley had been killed in action.
The lights of Boise emitted a soft, welcoming glow as the Union Pacific train carrying the remains of Lt. James Kerley approached the city from Green River in the pre-dawn hours of June 8, 1949. Two days later, former classmates carried their friend to a place of rest in the Field of Honor at Morris Hill Cemetery. Mrs. Appel, her daughter and family tended the grave for the next 40 years until they left Idaho.
James Kerley's life is an example of the sacrifice he and those close to him made for the freedom we enjoy. We honor him and other fallen Americans by remembering their stories on this special holiday.
Sailer, of Wadena, Minn., is the author of "The Oranges are Sweet," the story of a World War II fighter squadron in the Army Air Corps.