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Approaching his 91st birthday, Kenneth Wilbur Keplar told his son a war story the son had never heard and about a medal Keplar never received: the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After hearing it last week, the son, Kenneth Wyley Keplar, got on the phone to a nephew at the State Department. The mission: track down his father’s medal.
The nephew had a connection at the Pentagon, and through quick work, the records were found in time for the younger Keplar to present the medal to his father at his birthday party Thursday night.
And Thursday night, before pulling the medal out of a gift bag, the son asked his father to tell the story of Dec. 19, 1944, again for multiple generations assembled at a North Raleigh home.
“For many years I have tried to forget about the whole thing, but I really liked flying,” the elder Keplar said. “I know I still can.”
First Lt. Kenneth Keplar served his country as a pilot during World War II, flying with the 718th Bombardment Squadron, 449th Bombardment Group.
One cloudy night
On that night in December, nearly seven decades ago, Keplar was flying a mission to bomb key railroad installations in Rosenheim, Germany.
“It was quite a mission,” Keplar said.
He had been chosen to fly “Diamond down” that night, in the middle of the formation right behind the lead plane.
But Rosenheim was obscured by clouds. The formation instead headed for Innsbruck, Austria.
As Keplar was making his bombing run, heavy anti-aircraft fire struck his B-24, causing engine damage and extensive damage to other parts of the plane.
As the formation flew over the Alps, an aircraft in front of him was hit, he recalled. “It just went boom! My only reaction was get down so I went through the clouds.”
Flak had damaged the hydraulic system and gasoline lines. His ability to control the aircraft was limited. The plane was filling up with gasoline fumes. “….(A)n explosion seemed imminent,” read a military after-action report written the day after the mission.
And his windshield was freezing over, bringing visibility levels in the cloud cover down to zero. Keplar was flying by instrument readings, trying desperately to climb out of the clouds to rejoin the formation.
During all of this Keplar called across the plane to ensure that his crew members were OK.
“One crew member was crying and I told him ‘Son, just hang in there a couple hours and we’ll be on the ground and you’ll get a cup of bourbon.”
Keplar’s front gunner broke out the windshield to give him some visibility and the plane limped toward its home airfield.
“After leaving the target,” the after-action report continued, “Lt. Keplar with quickness of decision and outstanding leadership began to direct the crew in making emergency repairs. By now, in addition to the number one engine which was feathering, the number two engine began to operate in a sporadic manner.”
Despite all this, Keplar managed to land the plane without any injuries and contributed to the overall effectiveness of 80 percent of bombs dropped on target for their mission, according to the report.
“My co-pilot, he was out of it,” Keplar said. “I was 21, I thought I was 100. I often wonder about that night if I was lucky or good. I always thought I was good.
“I was never shown any recognition for that even though what I did was pretty big,” Keplar said.
He had been told he was going to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his achievements that night, but he was in such a hurry to get out of the Army he didn’t pursue the medal. He did earn two Bronze Stars for his service.
But no DFC. Until Thursday night and many years later. It took Keplar around 15 minutes to tell the story of the mission to family members. When he finished, his son pulled out a framed version of the after-action report and handed it to Keplar. Then he handed him the box containing the Distinguished Flying Cross, saying in a voice filled with emotion, “This is about 69 years late.”
After realizing what he was seeing, his father asked, “How in the world did you get that? That’s quite something.”
Lt. Keplar’s day had finally come.