LINCOLN, Neb. –
Roughly 11 years ago, then-Maj. John Williams received a not-quite out of the ordinary request while working as the bilateral affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Prague, Czech Republic. Normally, Williams, a Nebraska Air National Guard officer assigned to plan and implement engagements between the Czech Armed Forces and the Nebraska and Texas National Guard, would spend his days working on the finer details of various plans and operations.
However, there were times when the senior U.S. military officer at the embassy would ask Williams to fill in for him during various representative events involving the U.S. and Czech citizens. That was the case in June 2012 when he was asked to deliver a letter from the President of the United States, Barack Obama, to Ms. Zdenka Sladkova, an 81-year-old Czech woman who, at age 14, witnessed the sacrifice of an American pilot who crashed and was killed while strafing a German convoy near her small village.
In 1945, Sladkova was so touched by the pilot’s attempt to liberate her home that she tended a makeshift memorial of aircraft wreckage and wooden boundary markers every day for 68 years until she could no longer climb the steep hill to the crash site. Making this feat even more noteworthy was the opposition she faced from Russian and Czech communists that insisted Russia had liberated Czechoslovakia.
“Before accompanying me to the site, Ms. Sladkova kindly invited me into her home to share a coffee and cobbler,” Williams said. “Sitting beside her at the kitchen table was a scrapbook of correspondence that she had kept between her and the pilot’s family back in the United States and she invited me to peruse it. It was filled with letters between her and the pilot’s family as well as shared family photos taken of the pilot before he embarked for Europe.”
When Williams opened the book, the first page he turned to left him stunned.
There, among the artifacts of a decades-long effort to honor an American who had helped liberate her village and country from the Nazis after more than five years of occupation, was a yellowing photo of a young American pilot, wearing a wool-collared flight jacket standing near a flat, grassy airstrip. Next to that photo were several words that, even though they were written in Czech, Williams could easily pick out.
“Virgil P. Kirkham na latecke zakladne Brunning v Nebrasce P-47”
The photo was of 1st Lt. Virgil P. Kirkham, who had trained as a P-47 pilot at a U.S. Army Air Force Base in Bruning, Nebraska.
A KC-135R Stratotanker pilot with countless missions under his belt, Williams immediately knew where the photo had been shot.
“Bruning, Nebraska’s abandoned WWII airfield is well known by the pilots of the 155thAir Refueling Wing in Lincoln, Nebraska, as it is a significant visual reference point within our local military training area,” Williams said. “Although the airfield is no longer active, it is still quite visible when you’re flying over it.”
Williams said he never forgot that meeting. Not through the rest of his tour in Prague, nor during follow-on assignments with the 155th ARW in Lincoln.
In fact, that happenstance meeting set off a chain of events that finally culminated on Aug. 26, 2023, when senior leaders of the Czech Armed Forces honored the family of Lieutenant Kirkham as well as the families of two other Nebraska service members who participated in the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945 during the opening ceremony for the 2023 Guardians of Freedom Airshow in Lincoln.
“This was something that felt more like fate than coincidence and it stuck with me all these years,” said Williams, now a colonel and commander of the 155th ARW. “It is an incredible feeling to see Lieutenant Kirkham honored this way, and it’s surreal to think about everything that had to happen along the way for this story to conclude back in Nebraska where it began in 1945.”
During the ceremony which was performed according to Czech protocol by the Armed Forces of the Czech Republic, Kirkham, who was from Oregon, Pfc. Charles Havlat of Dorchester, Nebraska, and Staff Sgt. Ladislav “Lad” Jisa of Butler County, Nebraska, were honored posthumously when 1st Deputy Minister Frantisek Sulc, Czech Deputy Minister of Defense, and Lt. Gen. Karel Rehka, Czech Chief of Defense, presented the Czech Cross of Merit to representatives of the three servicemembers’ families.
According to the Czech leaders, it was a small token of appreciation for the roles and sacrifices made by the three American servicemembers – and thousand of others like them – to liberate the Czech people after years of Nazi oppression.
“It is a great honor to commemorate two great U.S. heroes who served during the liberation of then-Czechoslovakia from the Nazis,” said Sulc. “It is also my great honor to meet their families.”
Sulc said that Kirkham, who died on April 30, 1945, while attacking the German military convoy with his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter near the village of Trhanov in West Bohemia, was the last American aviator killed in an operational flight in combat over the Czech Territory and in Europe.
He added that Havlat, who was a member of Company B, 803rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, 5th Infantry Division, was killed on May 7, 1945, during a reconnaissance mission near the town of Volary. His death came shortly before his unit received General Dwight Eisenhower’s order to stop advancing into Bohemia following the unconditional surrender of German forces. Havlat’s death made him the last U.S. Army Soldier to die in combat in Europe.
Sulc also honored the family of Jisa, a Nebraskan with direct family lineage to Czechoslovakia. His regiment liberated Marianske Lazne and the southern portion of the Karlovy Vary District of Czechoslovakia. He later returned home to Nebraska where he was actively involved in his community and Veterans organizations in Dwight, Nebraska.
“We want to assure you that our country remembers and appreciates its liberators,” Sulc said. “Even though there is a great geographic distance between our nations, our friendship is overcoming this distance.”
The Czech Republic’s senior uniformed military officer seconded this thought, saying that the sacrifices made by those earlier American service members with Nebraska ties continues on to this day. And through the efforts of many, the Czech Republic is a free nation today.
“I am very proud and excited and honored that I can be here to witness (this important ceremony),” said Rehka. “I think it’s really important that we remember those people and that we remind ourselves… and also our next generations… that we as Czech know the price of freedom.”
Rehka said that earlier that week, the Czech Republic commemorated the 55th anniversary of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
“We lost our independence and our freedoms many times,” he said.
“There’s no limited freedom… you are either free or you’re not free. And what we do together, it’s a guardian of our freedom.”
That feeling was not lost on the younger members of the Czech military who participated in a variety of activities, either before or during the Guardians of Freedom Air Show.
“It was my first visit to both Nebraska and the U.S.,” said Czech Cpl. Ondrej Bach, who served as a member of the Czech Armed Forces Color Guard that performed multiple times at the airshow and during a street performance in Wilber, Nebraska, which bills itself as the “Czech Capitol of the United States.”
“I will remember the great patriotism of all people and (how) a flag flies on every house.”
One memory will stand out above all, Bach said. Standing with members of the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard as part of a joint color guard representing both the United States and the Czech Republic during the opening ceremony of the air show.
“I will never forget when I stood on stage with the National flag and the U.S. and Czech Republic anthems were played,” he said.
Shared experiences. Common goals. Enduring efforts. It’s what makes the Czech Armed Forces’ partnership with the Nebraska and Texas National Guard one of the most unique and effective efforts in Europe. An effort that will hopefully continue to grow and mature over the next 30 years and beyond.