Portraits of Valor: Dick Kern, 94, Army

A passion for flight has carried him into service and through life

A black and white portrait of a man.
World War II veteran Dick Kern in Hermantown, Minn., on Feb. 4, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In the basement parking garage of his apartment building, Dick Kern has a workbench where he builds model airplanes, just as he did growing up in Duluth. He said that “flying is in my blood,” and stopped flying his own full-size plane a few years ago. 

When he was 17, an Army recruiter came to his high school. Kern’s ears perked up when he heard about being a cadet in the Army Air Corps. He signed up with two friends he’d flown model airplanes with. He celebrated his 19th birthday in a tent in China with the nine other men who made up the crew of his B-24 bomber. 

Kern, being the smallest man on his crew, was the tail gunner. He operated a 50-caliber machine gun in a small turret looking out the back of the plane. The most common view was of the tops of the Himalayas, as they flew missions from India into China and Burma. 

They worked in this “forgotten theater” of the war to disrupt Japanese supply lines, bombing roads, railroads and bridges and flying fuel to Allied airfields in China. When he wasn’t in the air, he’d take an Army-issued Harley Davidson and run messages back and forth from headquarters. 

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Soon after two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Kern was sent back to the United States. The war was over and he was put in charge of 40 draftees. “I’ve never had so many crybabies in my life,” he said. 

The war made him grow up overnight. “You depended on yourself but you depended on your friends, especially when you’re flying with people,” he said. 

MPR News photojournalist Evan Frost spoke with Dick Kern in Hermantown, Minn.

A black and white portrait of a man in a chair.
World War II veteran Dick Kern.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Where were you when you found out the war was over? 

When they dropped the atomic bomb, we were on a mission and we were told to turn around and come back again. And of course, we couldn't land with bombs in the airplane. So then what we did, we went and when we were crossing the Bay of Bengal, we dropped our bombs in the ocean and landed in an airfield. Then, we found out they dropped it. Everybody was happier than heck at that time.

A week later, I was out on my way back to the United States in a Coast Guard boat that was converted into carrying troops back. So, we went from Calcutta down the Suez through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic and landed in New York City. And we were the first ones to come back from India and China and Burma to get back into the United States.

Was there a moment in the war that was most pivotal for you? Or one that you felt changed you in some way?

No, no, no.

In our training, they told us a lot of times on what's going to happen if we get captured, and the only thing you'd tell them is your name, rank and serial number and that was it.

And we hoped that we never had to be a prisoner, but you never know. I often thought about if you were a prisoner and what would happen to us, I think that was in the back of your mind all the time about not being captured.

What was important for you about fighting in this war?

Well, we wanted to fight, so we could get back to our own hometowns and enjoy our families. That was my thinking. We were trained to fight a war and ... the outside world didn't really intrigue me.

Of course, being only 19 years old and fighting a war from, you know, from 18 and 19 ... things change, your attitude towards people. You know, it's like I grew up overnight.

A man turns out a light near a model airplane bench.
World War II veteran Dick Kern turns out the light over his model airplane workbench in his Hermantown apartment complex on Feb. 4, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

What advice would you give to a young soldier joining the Air Force today?

Well, I'd like to sit and talk to him about my experience.

What can you expect? What are you going to do? What is your ambition? What do you want to do? You want to be a pilot? You want to be a ground man or maintenance man? Or what do you want to do? And I think I have the background, I'd be willing to sit down with the new recruit and talk about some of this stuff to let them know what to expect. 

What does American freedom mean to you? 

Your whole life. I don’t know what we’d do without the freedom that we have right now. 

Editor’s note: When this story originally aired, it included a quote with a racist term used to describe Japanese people. That was a mistake. We apologize for including the language in the story and have removed it.