My father, Raymond Clyde Kerns, was born 26 April 1921 in rural Kentucky. Though he was an outstanding student, he had to quit his one-room school after the eighth grade to help on his dad’s small tobacco farm. At 19, he was playing guitar with friends at an amateur contest in Ohio when he met 15-year-old singer Dorothy Helen Lane. That night, he went home and told his mother, “I just met the girl I’m going to marry.”
He wasn’t sure how he was going to support a wife, but the answer came in the form of the classic “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster in the window of an Ohio recruitment office. Without missing a step, he walked in, joined up, and was sent through basic training and on to Hawaii.
At the age of six, he had seen Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” glide across the sky over his family’s farm, and he’d dreamed of flying ever since. Because he had no high school diploma, however, the Army refused to give him flight training – even though he had aced the admission exam.
Undaunted, my father invested his Army paycheck in civilian flying lessons near Schofield Barracks, in the hills above Pearl Harbor. On the day he was to have soloed for the first time, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the Army was suddenly desperate for pilots. My father was accepted as one of the first liaison pilots of the Army Air Corps, flying a tiny Piper L-4 (the military version of the Piper Cub) above the battlefield to target artillery fire and provide lifesaving guidance for American ground troops.
While he was flying his “Paper Cup” above Hawaii, New Guinea, and the Philippines, Dorothy Lane was repairing radios in warplanes at a plant in Columbus, Ohio. They had corresponded since their first meeting, but did not see each other again until a brief visit when he returned to the States to attend Officer Candidate School in 1942.
Later that year, he proposed by telegram, and on 5 January 1943, my parents were married in Denton, Texas, where my father was taking additional flight training. After the brief ceremony, they walked down the street to an ice cream parlor to celebrate.
When the war ended, my father was discharged – but after four years of civilian life, he returned to active duty and made the Army his career. Over the years, the family was stationed in Japan, Germany, and many stateside locations, including Camp Hanford, Washington; Washington, D.C.; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; and Fort Hood, Texas. I was born at Camp Hanford in 1956, and my brother Noel was born in Germany in 1961.
In the Korean conflict, my father piloted both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, carrying supplies, wounded soldiers, senior officers, and prisoners of war. He left home again to serve in Vietnam in the late 1960s, and retired from the Army in 1972 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
My father’s many decorations include the Silver Star, the Air Medal, and various awards for meritorious achievement. He was also awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during World War II, when his Piper Cub was shot down by Japanese troops who continued to fire on him from shore as he floated near his sinking plane.
After retirement, Raymond C. Kerns — the young man who was initially denied pilot training because of his eighth-grade education — entered the University of Texas at Austin and earned a BFA with honors. He became the first president of the 89th Field Artillery Battalion Association, an organization of veterans of that battalion. He wrote the 89th’s official history, and published the Association’s highly-regarded newsletter for over a decade.�
It was his work for the 89th that led him to write his book, “Above The Thunder,” a very personal account of his experiences as a liaison pilot during World War II. Published in 2009 by Kent State University Press in Ohio, it was a finalist in the International Book Awards and won First Place in the Memoir & Biography category of the Army Historical Foundation’s book awards.
Raymond and Dorothy Kerns celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary on 5 January 2008, just a month and a day before my father passed away. We are all so proud of his service to our country, and so grateful for his example of a life lived in heartfelt commitment to the highest of human ideals. We miss him every day.
Raymond Clyde Kerns
Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army
WWII – Korea – Viet Nam
1921 – 2008