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Jerome Elwood Kiger

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West Virginia Veterans Memorial

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Jerome Elwood Kiger
1921-1945

"The air battle is not necessarily won at the time of the battle."

Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington

By order of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, on July 21, 2013, American and state flags at state facilities in West Virginia were flown at half-staff to honor a state native killed in World War II and finally laid to rest at Mannington Memorial Park: Army Air Corps Sergeant Jerome Elwood Kiger. Exactly sixty-nine years earlier to the day, he was serving as a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber, when it was shot down over Germany. Sgt. Kiger was declared missing in action at the time of the crash, and, as was the military protocol at the time, was declared dead one year and one day after the downing of the plane. (Source: “Flags in W. Va. Lowered to Half-Staff to Honor Airman Killed in WWII,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, July 20, 2013: 6C.)

The saga of Kiger’s remains coming home to rest at is a long and convoluted one. For many years, the crash site lay undiscovered. Then, in 2008, German aircraft enthusiast Markus Mooser found a number of remnants of the plane. Two of Jerome’s younger sisters—presumably Eva Lou and Mary Kathryn (“Kitty”)—received a call from the German military historian, who followed up with a box containing pieces of the plane, a rusted old watch, and some U.S. coins. Kiger’s remains, along with those of the other gunner who perished in the crash, Sgt. Charles Marshall, were recovered, and Jerome’s were identified by matching his DNA with that of his youngest sister. (Ironically, the hands of the watch pointed to 10:40, which is the time the plane was said to have gone down.) It was thought that Marshall had left his dog tags behind on that fateful day, but they were found at the crash site, while Jerome’s were not. (Source: Brandy Brubaker, “War Pilot’s Remains Located Decades Later,” Charleston Daily Mail, July 1, 2013: 12A; reprinted from the Morgantown Dominion Post, June 30, 2013.)

Jerome Elwood Kiger was born in Curtisville, Marion County, West Virginia, the day after Christmas in 1921. The first-born son of Jasper Newton and Mary Pearl Long Kiger, he was joined by brother Gerald M. and sisters Arlene B. (married name: Bradley), Eva Lou (married name: Hinerman), and Mary Kathryn (married name: Lewis). Better known as J. N., the family patriarch was an oil well pumper. The 1930 Federal Census shows Jasper, Pearl, Jerome, Arlene, and Gerald in the household, while the 1940 Census lists Arlene as “Anna” but adds Eva Lou. Apparently, Mary Kathryn was born after 1940. (Additional source: Gia Hays, “Sgt Jerome E. Kiger,” Find A Grave, accessed July 25, 2013, http://www.findagrave.com.)

Jerome attended Rymer Grade School and graduated from Mannington High School in 1939. Before enlisting in the fledgling Army Air Corps, he worked for Westinghouse; U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946, show an enlistment date of August 17, 1942, indicating that his Westinghouse employment would have lasted about three years. Kiger’s enlistment record states he had four years of high school; his civilian occupation was that of “unskilled garage laborers and car washers and greasers”; and he was single, without dependents. These records, of course, tend to assign registrants to broad categories and therefore provide less information than personal accounts or family histories.

One wonders if J. N. and Mary Pearl Kiger had a premonition about the fate of Jerome’s remains when they placed a headstone for Jerome at Mannington Memorial Park, between plots they had reserved for themselves. It was a place they could go to honor him, Jerome’s sister Eva Hinerman said. Regarding his final resting place, Eva’s daughter, Donna Renner, remarked, “This was a memorial his mother put up all those years ago…. And now he will be buried there.” (Source: Brandy Brubaker, “War Pilot’s Remains Located Decades Later,” Charleston Daily Mail, July 1, 2013: 12A; reprinted from the Morgantown Dominion Post, June 30, 2013.) Eva noted that Jerome was just 22 when he signed up for the U.S. Army Air Forces—because it was what his friends were doing and he felt a calling to serve his country. She added that he had plenty of girlfriends but never got a chance to settle down, get married, and start a family.

From August 17, 1942, through August 16, 1943, Jerome Kiger trained with Squadron B, Radio School, of the Army Air Corps at Salt Lake City, Utah. He attended flight school, allowing him to be classified as an AAF MOS 611 Aerial Gunner. He was deployed to the European Theater of war as a member of the 579th Bomber Squadron, 392nd Bomber Group, Eighth Army Air Force. By now promoted to sergeant, tail gunner Kiger took his place on a B-24 Liberator bomber, a key element in strategic raids on aircraft plants and other industrial targets. (Source: West Virginia Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 60, 8 March 2014.)

Sgt. Kiger perished on July 21, 1944, when the B-24 Liberator bomber on which he was a tail gunner crashed in Germany. Although a carefully engineered and effective Air Corps tool, B-24 losses were high, and gunners were particularly vulnerable, most likely because of their position in the plane. Several accounts of what happened on that fateful day exist, but many of the facts surrounding the crash are well known: The Eighth Air Force was in the midst of a campaign targeting industrial sites in southern Germany between Stuttgart and Munich, specifically, Oberpfaffenhofen. Piloted by Second Lieutenant Richard J. Carey, the Liberator received heavy fire, but in the crash, seven of the nine crew parachuted out (although one member’s parachute didn’t open, and he died on impact). Tail gunner Sgt. Kiger and waist gunner Sgt. Charles Marshall stayed with the plane and lost their lives. The six surviving crew members became prisoners of war.

The missions of the Eighth Air Force, 392nd Bomb Group, in World War II are well chronicled (see, for example, Eighth Air Force Historical Society, “392nd Bombardment Group,” accessed July 31, 2013, http://www.8thafhs.org/bomber/392bg.htm), and such records provide a detailed “official” recapitulation of the incident. An after-action report on Sgt. Kiger’s last mission notes that crew members Second Lieutenant Richard J. Carey, Second Lieutenant Donald E. Ziegenhardt, Second Lieutenant Allen R. Brownfelder, First Officer Vernon E. Billman, Staff Sergeant Hugh L. Wear, and Staff Sergeant Joseph W. Love became prisoners of war, while Sergeant Charles L. Marshall, Sergeant Bertram Glickman, and Sergeant Jerome E. Kiger were presumably killed in action. (Source: “Second Generation Research: 21 July 1944: Mission #136: Target: Oberpfaffenhofen,” accessed July 31, 2013, http://www.b24.net/missions/MM072144.htm.) The report indicates that (in addition to the surviving crew) there was one eye-witness account (Lt. Long, Navigator, 579th); a German report of the incident also exists and corroborates that account. Later, surviving crew would add detail, and the after-action report includes details of burial records and next of kin.

Although Kiger and Marshall were presumed dead, their remains were not recovered…at least, not in 1944 or any time soon after. Sgt. Jerome E. Kiger was memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Epinal American Cemetery, Vosges, France. American Battle Monuments Commission records indicate he received both the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. West Virginia Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 60 states that Sgt. Kiger also received the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one Bronze Service Star, the World War II Victory Medal, the Aerial-Gunner Badge Wing, and the Army Service Medal.
Tablets of the Missing

Tablets of the Missing, Epinal American Cemetery, Vosges, France. Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

Enter Marcus Mooser, the German national and military historian who discovered human remains and aircraft wreckage around 2008. In 2009, he turned these over to a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) investigating team that was scouring southern Germany. This unit and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, by dovetailing accounts of the crash, along with scientific information such as dental records and mitochondrial DNA (which matched that of Kiger’s sister and niece), were able to conclude that the remains—which his mother had anxiously hoped to retrieve for so many years—were indeed those of Jerome.

arrival at Pittsburgh

Sgt. Jerome Kiger’s casket arrives at Pittsburgh airport, where his family could finally meet him. Courtesy Donner Renner, niece of Jerome Kiger

And thus Jerome Kiger was brought to his final resting place, a grave in Mannington Memorial Park that his family had set aside for him when they first learned of his death. He now rests between his mother and father, with a marker that says: “In Memory of Our Son Sgt. Jerome E. Kiger, U.S. Air Serv 579 Sq 392 Bomb Group; Born Dec. 26, 1921; Killed in Action over Germany, July 21, 1944.”

While it was a long time coming, July 21, 2013, provided some closure and comfort for a waiting family. Thanks to modern technological breakthroughs, identification could be positive. And Mannington did not forget; as his remains were escorted by an Honor Guard from Fort Meade, Maryland, numerous patriot groups stood in honor, along with family members and current military and government representatives. Sgt. Kiger was remembered as “a proud soldier with great love for his family, his friends and his country.” (Source: “Sgt. Jerome Kiger,” Fairmont Times West Virginian, July 17, 2013.)
road sign

In 2014, the West Virginia Legislature passed a resolution that a section of Marion County Route 1, from mile post 4.54 to mile post 9.15, be named the “USAF Sergeant Jerome E. Kiger Memorial Road.”

Donna Renner, niece of Sgt. Jerome E. Kiger, contributed to this article.

Article prepared by Patricia Richards McClure
December 2016

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Jerome Elwood Kiger

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