Long Ago and Far Away: The Last Mission of Kenny Kai-Kee
June 18, 2004
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
- Pete Seeger, copyright 1961 Fall River Music Inc.
This year, on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, the survivors of what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the "crusade in Europe" against Hitler and fascism gathered across the country for what was for many veterans a final summer of reminiscences. Time's winnowing of the ranks of the citizen soldiers - now in their seventies and eighties - has accelerated with each passing year. The 16 million men and women who served during the Second World War have been dying at the rate of 1,500 per day.
The surviving old soldiers and airmen will lift a glass to "absent friends." Others will summon again the strength and the will to journey to far-flung places of the world where they will remember and lay flowers or wreaths at gravesites or battlefield monuments.
Families, widows and former fiancées will pause and recall the day they heard the tragic news spread from War Department telegrams. Some may retreat to quiet rooms and listen to well-worn 78s of Artie Shaw's orchestra punching out "Begin the Beguine," Tommy Dorsey's trombone playing "Getting Sentimental Over You" or a young Sinatra singing "I'll Be Seeing You." The worn albums of old photos and yellowed clippings will be brought out again, and hearts will turn to a time long ago and far away.
A Soldier's Story
He was one of the young fliers over the skies over Europe during the terrible summer of 1944. He was a native son of California whose courage and sacrifice remained a mystery for two generations and whose name has been forgotten except by his family and the small, tightly knit community of East Bay Chinese Americans who came of age during the Second World War.
He was, and forever will be, a beloved son, friend, classmate, boyfriend, bomber pilot and Chinese American original. Long forgotten except by the dwindling few who counted him as a friend of their youth, he deserved better because he was one of the best Chinese America had to offer.
His name was Kenneth Burton Kai-Kee.
One in Five Chinese Americans Fought
Almost 50,000 Asian Pacific Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. A 1982 Veterans Survey Report by the Chinese Historical Society of America estimates the number of Chinese American military personnel ranged from 15,000 to 20,000. Since 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act had created a bachelor society with no dependents - thus making many single Chinese men the first to be drafted. The first real generation of native-born Chinese American men was also called up for military service, if they had not already volunteered.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and researchers at the Oakland Museum, 13,499 Chinese American men fought in the armed forces - approximately 25 percent in the Navy and 75 percent in the U.S. Army, with units such as the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions in Europe and the 6th, 32nd and 77th Infantry Divisions in the Pacific. Counted together, they represented 20 percent of all Chinese American men in the continental United States. In the words of historian Iris Chang, "Ethnic Chinese men gave their lives disproportionate to their presence in the country."
In the AAF
Kai-Kee joined the Army Air Force on October 1, 1943, while the war was raging in Europe and just less than three months before the repeal of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act. The Army Air Force (the AAF) was learning hard lessons about the perils of daylight precision bombing. Bomber pilots and crews were needed to replace staggering losses suffered in massive bombing raids against the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt in the German heartland.
Kai-Kee shipped out to Europe in 1944 to join the 15th Air Force based in Foggia, Italy. Once in Europe, he started flying B-17s with his unit, the 32nd Squadron of the 301st Bomb Group (Heavy), which had shifted its flight operations to Lucera, Italy. Kai-Kee completed his first combat mission in the summer of 1944.
On July 26, 1944, the 301st Bomb Group, including the 32nd Squadron, was ordered to bomb an aircraft parts factory complex at Wiener-Neudorf, located in a suburb of Vienna. The bomber crews of the 32nd based in Lucera, Italy, knew that the mission was perilous. The strategic industrial center for the German military bristled with a network of fighters and antiaircraft fire.
Several days before Kai-Kee's last mission, the commanding officer of his unit held a briefing for all flight personnel about new German fighter tactics against bombers. The ability of the German Luftwaffe to maintain its force of operational fighter aircraft had declined. Replacing aircraft lost to age or enemy action had become increasingly difficult because of the strategic bombing campaign waged against German industry by the bombers of the 15th Air Force based in Italy and the 8th Air Force based in England.
As a result, the squadron's C.O. informed his men, the Germans were only sending fighters up once a week to challenge bomber squadrons. By grounding its fighters to repair and re-arm for ten-day periods, the Germans were able to assemble combat-ready fighter groups of two to 300 planes to shoot down American bomber formations. The new tactics had already been used against the 8th Air Force, and the bombers of Kai-Kee's 15th Air Force would bear the brunt of the new fighter swarms.
For those of us at this meeting, the numbers of 200 or 300 fighters attacking seemed unreal, since most of us had seen relatively few fighters on any one mission, wrote Tech. Sgt. Bill Brainard, the radioman on Kai-Kee's old B-17F. What I had seen before on other missions was at the most six fighters, always using the standard evasive tactic of flying in at you firing their machineguns until they maneuvered away by rolling over and putting their belly armor plate up as your target.
An Old and Slow Plane
That was a difficult mission, as the clouds built up to the point that we could not properly bomb our target, wrote Bob Piper, a former Army Air Force captain. Piper, who lives in Richmond, Va., was a B-17 commander with the 32nd Squadron. He was the squadron leader for the raid over the Weiner-Neudorf aircraft works that included Kai-Kee's bomber.
As a leader of a seven-plane squadron in a 28-plane group, Piper had only incidental contact with the Chinese American second lieutenant because Piper had the responsibility to call the squadron roll on the fateful day as he now refers to July 26, 1944. He confirmed that Kai-Kee had been assigned to an older B-17F bomber - the same model as the cinematically renowned "Memphis Belle." Kai-Kee's plane, nicknamed "Laura," was slower, and it also did not have a chin turret of twin, forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns mounted under its nose.
"She was pretty patched up from numerous previous missions," wrote Brainard in his memoir 50 years later, "and slower than the later models in the squadron, especially when her bomb bay doors were in the open position. Therefore, she had to fly in the rear so as not to fall back in the path of another B-17. On a bomb run this could prove to be a hazard."
By coincidence, Piper had flown the "Laura" on three previous missions, including a mission that bombed Vienna's railroad yards earlier that month. On that seven-hour mission, the 15th Air Force attacked in force and encountered no fighter planes because of cloudy conditions.
On that July morning, Brainard recalled rising early, eating breakfast and attending the usual pre-mission briefing about the expected intensity of flak and the numbers of fighters that might be sent against them. After the briefing, the crews were driven in trucks out to their planes.
That day, Kai-Kee discovered that his assigned plane, the Laura, bore serial number 157, and was the oldest plane in the squadron. The ground crew had already mounted the plane's bomb load.
A "Make-up" Crew
In addition to being assigned a slow plane, Kai-Kee's crew for the mission was a "make-up crew." With the exception of Brainard (who knew the navigator for the day's mission, Thomas Steed), none of the crewmen who boarded the Laura that morning had met each other prior to the mission. After a few minutes of conversation to get acquainted with each other, Kai-Kee and his crewmates climbed on board the aging bomber.
As the Laura taxied down a runway consisting of thousands of perforated iron mats, the plane and crew bounced as the bomber's wheels rolled over dents in the runway for a long time. Takeoffs on imperfect, mat runways were often violently accomplished as the plane gained speed. Planes fully fueled and pregnant with full bomb loads failing to lift off risked falling back to earth and blowing up.
Kai-Ke's plane made it off the ground that day, climbing into the sky over the Adriatic Sea and gaining altitude steadily. From his seat in the co-pilot's position, Kai-Kee would have seen the Swiss Alps. Sitting in the middle of the fuselage, his radioman Brainard searched the sky and felt a sense of calm as the engines droned.
For all of the bombers of the 32nd Squadron, the takeoff and rendezvous into formation in the early morning of July 26 occurred without incident. Piper's plane, "Miss Tallahassee Lassee, " was the leader of a formation of seven planes assigned to the " Diamond, " the rearmost position of a four-squadron group of 28 planes. Since Kai-Kee's plane lacked speed, the Laura flew in the lower left position of Piper's flight of bombers. This " coffin corner" position was considered the most dangerous place in the formation because of its vulnerability to attack from enemy fighters.
The flying conditions on the morning of July 26 consisted of towering clouds and unstable weather. However, Piper, Kai-Kee and their comrades did not know that the other bombers from the 15th Air Force would not join their flight group. The weather conditions had forced the rest of the 15th to turn back. Kai-Kee's group leader, however, never received the radio call to abort the mission.
The mission should never have occurred, but the planes of the 32nd Squadron still flew on and, in doing so, produced the terrible confluence of events that changed forever the life of Kenny Kai-Kee, and the start of a mystery that would endure for a half century.
I'll be seeing you
In all the old, familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through . . .
- Lyrics and music by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain
Kenneth B. Kai-Kee was the son of a pioneer family and a native-born Chinese American in an era when there were few. Even his surname was an invention of the Chinese American West.
Kenny, as he was known to his friends, was a grandson of Ching Hin Kim, a legendary Chinese pioneer who had settled in Ione, Calif. Ching ran the Kai-Kee general store that served the Chinese miners of Amador County. Grandfather Ching and his American-born wife, Mo See, had nine children, eight of whom were sons born in Ione. All the townspeople of Ione called the eight sons the Kai-Kee boys, and the name stuck. The Ching family was a long way from On Doong village in Heungshan County, Guangdong province, so why not invent a new name in an adopted country? In Chinese California, the family adopted the Kai-Kee store's name as their American moniker.
Kenny's father, Lock Kai-Kee, was already a longtime resident of Oakland, Calif., when Kenny was born in 1922. Lock and his wife, Ida Margarita (a.k.a. Rita), worked hard and bought a home at 927 45th St. in East Oakland. Lock was a member of the Wa Sung Athletic Club, and a picture of him as the third base coach of the Wa Sung baseball team of 1931 appeared recently in the Wa Sung Community Service Club 2004 Community Directory.
Swing Time at Cal
The Kai-Kees' only son, Kenny, was a natural athlete in a family of prominent sportsmen. Kenny's Uncle Sam played varsity football for the "Wonder Team" of 1918 at UC Berkeley. Uncle Mike played varsity baseball for Yale University in the 1920s. Another uncle, Mark Kai-Kee, earned a letter as a member of the boxing team and Stanford's Class of 1934.
To his grade-school classmates, Kenny was an easy-going and fun kid who grew into the personable young man that he is remembered as today. He had little problem attracting his fair share of female attention. Dolores Wong, who entered UC Berkeley in the fall of 1938, remembered her fellow collegian, Kenny, as a likeable, social and friendly student and the old boyfriend of Phyllis Soohoo - my mother.
Alice (Chue) Lew, who joined the Cal gang in 1939 as a new generation of Chinese Americans started to attend college in force for the first time, recalled the good times before the war and the young adults living in the tempo of swing time.
In those days, all Chinese students came together. It was something we felt " close together as Chinese. He [Kenny] was really a fun-loving person. He had a great personality. I remember him as a really nice guy to be around," Lew recalls.
At Berkeley, Kenny had been a student-athlete on the move. He was studying accounting and "good at everything." He was a memorable feature of the campus social scene, as he often planned the getaway trips to Santa Cruz for all of the Chinese kids. Snapshots of Kenny at Lake Lagunitas, relaxing with the gang at Cal, and walking the grounds of the World's Fair on Treasure Island, show a relaxed, confident young man with an easy smile.
By all accounts, Kenny had a bright future. One friend recalled that he had the highest I.Q. test score and always seemed to have his homework done. This left him plenty of time to enjoy the outdoors and organize his share of the swim parties at Lake Temescal and Lake Anza, the double dates, and the big bands at big hotels such as the Palace, the Claremont and the Drake. Kenny was in the middle of it. After all, he also was one of the lucky guys on campus who owned a car - a two-seat Model A.
"He was a very up-beat young man with a mischievous sense of humor," recalls Maggie Gee, herself a legendary pilot for the WASPs during World War II.
War Comes to Oakland
In 1940, the U.S. Census counted 3,201 persons of Chinese ancestry living in Oakland, Calif. Lock and Rita must have been proud before World War II. They had worked hard to own their house on 45th Street, and their only son, Kenny, was enrolled at UC Berkeley. He was a natural athlete who would soon earn a letter jacket for one of Cal's varsity teams.
When the war came to America's Chinatowns, the young men of Oakland's Chinese community answered the call. Men such as my uncle, Clayton Soohoo, and Alfred Fong and Wilfred Eng - as they told the Oakland Tribune last year - were inducted into the Army on the same day. The Army Air Force took 25 percent of the Army inductees, including Kenny.
"I remember Kenny Kai-Kee as a student at Cal, a talented athlete, very popular, with a good sense of humor," says retired Judge Delbert Wong who had served with the AAF as a bomber crewman.
On October 1, 1943 - less than three months before the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act - Kenny entered the service of the U.S. Army Air Force as a pilot trainee. Kenny's training did not pass without incident. AAF records indicate that he had survived a landing accident at Dyersburg AAF base in Tennessee on February 24, 1944. Kenny and the pilot of the B-17F suffered a landing gear collapse after landing.
Kenny's uncle, Mark, recalls hearing from a friend of Kenny's that the accident occurred in part because of an error by Kenny in hitting the gear switch instead of the flap switch after completing their landing roll. The oversight was understandable because Kenny and his co-pilot were distracted after having been lost, and they were excited to have found their way back to base.
In spite of receiving a reprimand for the bad landing, Kenny qualified as a bomber pilot in 1944. The stateside snapshots of him taken for the relatives back home show how easily he wore the snappy uniform and the pilot's wings of the AAF.
"He was one of the few Asians to become a bomber pilot," recalls Wong, a fellow collegian. Wong survived 30 missions with the AAF as a navigator with the 401st Bomb Group. Since the pilot was the captain of the crew, there were many on the selection board who thought Asians would not be good leadership material. Most Asians on combat air crews were navigators, bombardiers or gunners.
Kenny Kai-Kee, the handsome Chinese college kid and the only son of Lock and Rita Kai-Kee of Oakland, Calif., had grown into manhood with the Army Air Force.
When Kenny received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force in October 1943, the tide of the Second World War in Western Europe had not yet turned against Nazi Germany. The air offensive conducted by the bombers of the Army Air Force during daylight, in concert with the night bombing campaign by the Royal Air Force against Germany and Italy, is credited with helping to defeat the Axis powers.
The AAF paid a high price for its successes. Losses from all causes totaled 27,694 aircraft, including 8,314 heavy bombers; 1,623 medium and light bombers; and 8,841 fighters destroyed in combat.
The casualties incurred by the strategic bombing campaign over Germany"s industrial heartland were particularly horrific. American military planners had simply assumed that the bombers 'would always get through.' AAF brass had further assumed, according to military historian Tami Biddle, that "the speed of bombers such as the B-17 'Flying Fortress' and its multiple guns would enable bombers to fly in self-defending groups - without long-range fighters to fly alongside as protective escorts."
The daylight missions by the 8th and 15th Air Forces killed and wounded thousands of men. According to U.S. Air Force Museum historians, total AAF battle casualties were 91,105 personnel - 34,362 killed; 13,708 wounded; and 43,035 missing, captured or interned.
Even when long-range escort fighters using throw-away fuel tanks were introduced in the winter and spring of 1944, the air forces of the United States and Germany were locked in a brutal war of attrition. Given American numerical superiority in aircraft, the resulting degradation of German industrial capacity and Luftwaffe interceptor aircraft had assured effective Allied air supremacy by the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.
The flight of the old and slow bomber, nicknamed "Laura," took its co-pilot, Kenny Kai-Kee, and his crewmates north from Italy in the middle of summer in 1944. The Laura was part of a 28-plane group from the 32nd Squadron of the 301st Bomb Group (heavy) that had flown without incident across the Alps, and into Austrian airspace on July 26, 1944. The bombers intended to rendezvous with other planes of the 15th Air Force to bomb an aircraft factory complex at Wiener-Neudorf.
Unknown to the bomber group, the 15th Air Force had cancelled the mission and recalled all bombers. The group leader's plane, however, never received the recall order. Thus, Kenny's plane and the other ships from the 32nd Squadron flew on toward the heavily defended industrial suburbs of Vienna.
"The 15th Air Force cancelled and recalled the planes," squadron leader Bob Piper reveals in an e-mail message to Kenny's cousin a half-century later. "Somehow our group did not get the radio message and we continued on alone. The fighter planes were waiting for us."
From his station in the middle of the plane's fuselage, Kenny's radioman, Bill Brainard, waited for the usual number signal at 11:00 a.m. from the base radio station. At 10:55 a.m., Brainard was scanning the skies from the window when he saw on the horizon dozens of contrails " the strands of vapor left by planes rushing toward the bomber formation. Brainard immediately switched on his plane intercom and called over the system to ask if the pilot had seen approaching group of planes.
"I hope they are our escort," answered the Laura's pilot, 2nd Lt. Leo J. McDonald. "They're late! Everybody, keep your eyes on 'em."
Brainard, assuming all was in order, switched off his intercom and back to his radio to wait for the base radio signal. Feeling uneasy, Brainard switched back to his intercom to find out what was happening outside. As he did so, he heard through his headphones a gunner's quiet remarks.
"They look like ME-109s," a voice said matter-of-factly.
"God damn it, they are 109s!" blared the same voice, and Brainard heard the gunners start firing their Browning .50-caliber, air-cooled machine guns.
According to Piper, approximately 50 Focke-Wulf fighters descended at once on the lumbering flight of American bombers about 50 miles south of the target. The results were horrific to the air crews who had witnessed the carnage.
"They were waiting for us," Piper recalls in his e-mail message. "The fighters started at the back of the squadron, and worked up to the front. Planes 3 (on my right wing), 5, 6 and 7 (the three trailing ships) went down almost at once. Planes 2 (on my left wing) and 4 (trailing just behind me) were hit. We did not see any of them completely destroyed."
During the ten-minute attack, the gunners of Piper's ship, "Miss Tallahassee Lassee," shot down eight of the FW-190s and damaged a dozen more. The aircrew of Piper's No. 4 plane destroyed another nine and damaged five of the German planes.
"Twenty-millimeter cannon shells were bursting between the lead squadron and me, a hundred of them, from the rear, right in front of my face," Piper recounts. "I remember ducking, and then remembering that my seat back included armor plate."
A few minutes after fighting off the German fighters, Piper's bomber flew into a cloud. When his ship emerged, bombers 4 and 2 were nowhere in sight. "The Miss Tallahassee Lassee", the sole survivor from its squad, flew on for another 20 minutes in the clouds - dropping its bombs at random because of the thick cloud cover and avoiding flak and mid-air collisions with other American bombers - and then rejoined the other survivors of the group for the trip back to Lucera. Piper's plane had endured the ordeal unscathed. His No. 4 plane, which had returned to base after the fighter attack, was the only other ship from his original seven-plane Diamond formation.
The "Laura," co-piloted by Kenny Kai-Kee, was missing.
The tail gunner on board the leading plane of the bomber group saw Kenny's ship pull up suddenly from its lower tail-end position to an altitude slightly higher than the lead bomber. When it could ascend no more, the "Laura" began to roll over and head downward.
On board the "Laura", Kenny and his pilot, MacDonald, were coping with the catastrophic damage to their ship. Machine gun or cannon fire from the Luftwaffe planes had torn into the American bomber's wing, setting on fire its right wing tanks. The ship had started going down in a "right peel." A ball turret gunner in another plane saw the Laura pass overhead - on fire.
"It appeared as if the pilot pulled it to one side to spare other ships in the formation,"Staff Sgt. Albert Bernard Jr. reported later to the AAF. m [Laura's serial number] was to the rear of us at five o'clock when it dove straight down, spinning as it went down.".
As Kenny and his pilot fought to regain control of their ship, the damaged bomber was seen by witnesses to level off momentarily.
"It pulled out for a moment then continued to dive," Bernard wrote. "When it was 1,000 yards below us, it blew up. One chute was seen to open."
Brainard had been firing his machine gun and watching another bomber from its high-right position in the formation fly over Kenny's plane, missing it by inches and finally going down. Brainard continued firing while clipping on the parachute that he had forgotten to wear.
At the moment when the Laura exploded, the sudden lurch of the plane slammed Brainard's face onto the fuselage floor. Centrifugal forces pinned him there momentarily. When he could move, Brainard pulled himself into a squatting position at the bulkhead door to the bomb bay, looking forward. He could see nothing but sky; the bomb bay had blown away. From his position, Brainard saw the entire front portion of the Laura descending with its full load of bombs, its propellers still spinning. Kenny and the pilot were still strapped into the cockpit, at the controls. The nose of the bomber had been blown out, blowing the bombardier out of the plane without a parachute.
The same opening in the nose allowed the navigator, Thomas J. Steed, to escape. Steed became the last living person to hear Kenny's voice before the explosion.
"Is everything all right, navigator?" Kenny asked. A second later, the plane was spinning downward, and Steed was trapped at the escape hatch. At about an altitude of 1,000 feet, Steed was able to pull himself out of the plane's nose and deploy his parachute about 500 feet above the ground.
These endured all and gave all that justice among nations might prevail and that mankind might enjoy freedom and inherit peace.
-Author unknown, Normandy Chapel (inscription on exterior of the lintel of the chapel).
As the Laura fell to the earth, navigator Thomas J. Steed realized that pilot Kenny Kai-Kee and his remaining crewmates were either dead or dying from enemy gunfire or from the centrifugal forces exerted on the plane's contents as it plunged toward the earth.
In the meantime, a very scared radioman, Sgt. Bill Brainard, was looking aft. The concussion from the onboard explosion had also blown out the tail section of the B-17 bomber. Unknown to him at the time, both waist gunners and the tail gunner had been able to parachute safely. Seeing nothing but daylight at both ends of his part of the fuselage, Brainard jumped out from his section of the shattered aircraft. He delayed opening his parachute in order to avoid having the falling wreckage rip his chute's canopy. As his chute deployed, Brainard was pulled up and he saw the section of plane from which he had just exited hurl past him to the ground. .
Brainard landed safely in the Austrian countryside at 11:05 a.m. As he looked up, he saw the rest of the bomber group continue on its way to the target. He also saw fighter activity in the sky and realized that the American escort fighters had apparently shown up - too late for Kenny Kai-Kee and the "Laura". .
The entire air battle from the time Brainard first spotted the German fighters had lasted a mere 10 minutes. .
As he gathered in his chute, Brainard could hear numerous gunshots. He had landed near the crash site of the Laura. The front section of the bomber had slammed into the ground and was burning. The bomber's onboard ammunition was "cooking off" in the ensuing fire. As he listened to the sounds, he heard and felt the massive explosion of a 500-lb. bomb detonating. .
After evading contact with local search parties and hiding all night, Brainard was discovered and befriended by an Austrian farmer and his wife. They led Brainard to the Laura's crash site on the following day. .
The "Laura" had been flattened by the force of its impact with the ground. The corpse of the ball turret gunner was visible in the plane's fuselage. He had not been able to winch himself out of gun position and jump out of the plane in time. The bomber's gas tanks had ruptured, setting off a fire that had consumed the front section and wings of the aircraft. The 500-lb. bombs had detonated and left a 10-foot hole near the wreckage, scattering human remains and more debris around the crash site. Twenty-four hours later, the rim of the blast crater was still smoking. Little remained of the pilots - Kenny Kai-Kee was not coming home. .
In a corner of San Francisco's Chinatown, families and veterans congregated in February 2004 to celebrate the restoration of one of the few monuments devoted to Asian Pacific American veterans. The recently restored plaque in St. Mary's Square commemorates the Bay Area Chinese American service personnel killed in the line of duty during World Wars I and II. .
A reading of the names on the plaque will not disclose the name of 2nd Lt. Kenneth B. Kai-Kee of the 32nd Squadron of the 301st Bomb Group (heavy), 15th Air Force. The omission is not surprising because his disappearance 60 years ago was a mystery to all except a few family members. His name has rarely, if ever, appeared in the lists of Chinese Americans who died in service to the United States since the time of the Civil War. In fact, the circumstances of his passing remained a mystery even after the war. When the War Department published its World War II Honor List of Dead and Missing for the state of California in 1946, the entry beside his misspelled name merely stated a "finding of death." .
His name, however, mattered to the young woman who would become my mother and to the small community of native-born Chinese Americans who had grown up in Oakland's Chinatown or attended UC Berkeley before the war. .
Brainard, the sole witness to Kenny's death on July 26, 1944, spent the rest of the war at Stalag Luft IV. Five decades later, he would discover by reading in an ex-POW newsletter that a fifth crewman had miraculously survived the downing of the "Laura". .
"We lost 12 planes from our 28-plane group," wrote Bob Piper, the leader of Kenny's bomber squadron. Piper and the survivors from the 32nd Squadron were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their efforts on the costly mission over Wiener-Neudorf, Austria. .
"You and your family have my sympathies," Piper wrote to one cousin who was researching Kenny's fate years later. "I thank God that I have survived to tell some of the story" .
Kenny was one of the bright members of the first wave of Chinese Americans to enter the university. Many of the students who entered Cal before the war had grown up in Chinese communities, lived through the Depression and graduated from American high schools. On the eve of the war, they were poised to strive for genuinely American futures beyond the confines of the ethnic enclaves that had circumscribed their parents' lives. .
"We were going to get married in ª [or] «," says Jane Lim Ligh, who became engaged to Kenny while a student at Cal. "Kenny had it all set up. We wanted to get married all through Cal." Unfortunately, Ligh fell ill in 1943, and her subsequent hospitalization caused the couple to postpone their plans. By the time she had recovered, however, Kenny had been shipped overseas. .
As the terrible summer of 1944 drew to a close, word of the downing of Kenny's plane spread quickly among his college mates and the tight-knit Chinese community in Oakland. The bad news traveled quickly around the world, reaching Mark Kai-Kee, Kenny's uncle, in India, where he was training Chinese troops in the art of firing 4.2-inch mortars for Gen. Stillwell. .
"The family was hit very hard," recalls Alice Lew, "the mother especially, Kenny being an only son." .
Sadly, the details of Kenny's death, and the series of misfortunes on one horrible day, remained largely unknown to family and friends. .
"I returned home in July 1944 to learn that Kenny was missing," recalls retired Judge Delbert Wong. Wong, a veteran of the 401st Bomb Group, had finished his 30th mission over Europe one week before D-Day. "When I was in the Bay Area, I visited Janie Lim [Ligh], who read me Kenny's letter to her after his first mission, in which he said, `One finished, and 29 to go.'" .
As the days stretched into months, it became clear that Kenny was not going to return. Lock and Rita Kai-Kee were devastated and lonesome with their only son gone. For a time, Ligh could not visit them. She had been hospitalized for a year with a serious illness, and there was the denial born of a parent's grief. .
"Also, it was hard to go there," Ligh remembers. "They thought he was still alive, but we all knew otherwise." .
Although he was later classified as killed in action, Lock and Rita probably never knew all of the facts relating to their son's death. .
Kenny's remains had been interred initially in a distant plot. The German records recorded a burial first on July 27, 1944, in the cemetery of St. Jakob in Walde, Austria. More than five years later, Lock and Rita were notified that Kenny's remains were coming "home" to be re-interred at the Jefferson National Cemetery Barracks. Since World War II, the cemetery has been the site of group interments where two or more veterans share a common grave. .
His parents traveled back to St. Louis, Mo., to witness the re-interment, which occurred on May 15, 1950. .
Kenny's fiancée, Jane, recalled her brother telling her that she had to "join the living [and] face the truth." Kenny was not going to walk through the door again - ever. She later married someone else. In the decades that followed, she and her husband would regularly get together with Kenny's parents to talk of the old times and the people Kenny had left behind. .
Marcia Kai-Kee, a younger cousin of Kenny, remembered the day when, after the death of his father, Lock, she and other family members entered the room at the house on 45th Street that had been Kenny's bedroom. The closet containing Kenny's clothes had not been disturbed for years. His uniform, medals and letterman's jacket from Cal remained where they had been stored in 1945, as if Lock and Rita expected Kenny to come home any day. .
My mother, Phyllis Soohoo, was a compulsive archivist. She kept all of the half-dozen photos of her and Kenny and sent a Christmas card to Lock and Rita every year thereafter. Years later, when her own family went out for dinner in Oakland, she would meet and greet Kenny's parents on the sidewalks of Chinatown as the old-time families usually encountered each other going to or from dinners at the old Silver Dragon. .
No one can recall if Lock and Rita ever revisited their son's lonely grave in St. Louis, so far from family, friends and loved ones. If my mother knew of the location of Kenny's grave when a cross-country motor trip with her family took her through St. Louis in the summer of 1964, she never mentioned it. .
My late mother would probably deny it, but a close observation would have detected the fleeting, faraway look whenever she talked about Kenny or if his name was mentioned in conversation. She, Ligh and millions of other Americans knew first-hand not only the young men who never returned but the loss, grief and the waste of war. .
Rita carried the bitterness of her loss and the cruelty of war's cost until her death in August 1983. Lock died seven months later. .
Honor and Remembrance.
If the task of reclaiming the history of Chinese America must begin anew with each generation, then the names and stories of gallantry and sacrifice should also be told again. Such is the heavy burden on ethnic historians and our storytellers to remember the community's forgotten men and women in unforgettable ways. .
Thankfully, today we can honor and remember Army Air Force veterans from all over California who flew in B-17s, such as Oakland's own Sgt. Thomas Fong; 1st Lt. Fred Gong, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross; pilot and 1st Lt. Victor Schoon; and 1st Lt. (and later judge) James Sing Yip. .
The loss of Kenny Kai-Kee, the only son of a pioneering family, was doubly bitter because he exemplified the first all-American generation of Chinese residents. The war coincided with the rise of the first Chinese American middle class. As the image and condition of the Chinese in America changed, so did its economic opportunities. By 1943 - the year the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed - 15 percent of the shipyard workers on the San Francisco Bay were Chinese. .
Kenny would have seen his buddies buying homes and raising children in the nation's Chinatowns, desegregating neighborhoods, resuming college careers with the help of the G.I. bill, and wading into the social and cultural mainstream of postwar America. .
Had Kenny stayed in Oakland, he probably would have married, raised a family and grown old. We would have seen him as another 80-year-old senior citizen, serving up 50 years' worth of his easy banter along with the stacks of pancakes at the Wa Sung Club's annual Easter breakfast. As a member of one of Chinese America's greatest generations, he would have made his own contribution. .
Instead, we are left only with the incredible selflessness of Kenny and the thousands who never returned home.
The first and second installments can be read at www.asianweek.com.
Douglas Chan wishes to acknowledge the contribution of radioman and gunner William W. Brainard of West Palm Beach, Fla., for his account of the Laura in My Flight-Time Stories W.W.II. In addition, he thanks 32nd Bomb Squadron veteran Boyd Thompson and Joe Angeles of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office for their assistance. .
In last week's installment, photos were incorrectly attributed to Douglas Chan. They were the courtesy of Mark Kai-Kee. .
PART ONE: http://www.asianweek.com/2004/06/18/long-ago-and-far-away-the-last-mission-of-kenny-kai-kee/
PART TWO: http://www.asianweek.com/2004/06/25/long-ago-and-far-away-the-last-mission-of-kenny-kai-kee-part-ii/
PART THREE: http://www.asianweek.com/2004/07/02/long-ago-and-far-away-the-last-mission-of-kenny-kai-kee-part-iii/
All Writings by Doug Chan http://www.asianweek.com/2004/06/18/long-ago-and-far-away-the-last-mission-of-kenny-kai-kee/
2nd Lt Kenneth B Kai-Kee was assigned to the 301st BG 32nd Squadron.
Military Occupational Specialty (MOS): Co-Pilot.
The following information on Kenneth Kai-Kee is gathered and extracted from military records. We have many documents and copies of documents, including military award documents. It is from these documents that we have found this information on 2nd Lt Kai-Kee. These serviceman's records are nowhere near complete and we are always looking for more material. If you can help add to Kenneth Kai-Kee's military record please contact us.
||Ribbon & Device
26 July 1944 A/C 42-3157 LAURA MIA/KIA
Please contact us with any biographical data, pictures or other information regarding the service and life of Kenneth Kai-Kee.