click here to return to the Class of 1954 homepage

MA writing guidelines

self-written MA format

NOK approval form

funeral attendee form

























James M. Kirwin

James M. Kirwin

No. 19597 11 Sep 1930 - 8 Sep 1974

Died: Near Silverton, CO
Buried: Ashes scattered in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

JAMES MYRON KIRWIN, the only son of James and Mabel McLaughlin Kirwin, was born in Maysville, KY. When Jim was six, his father was fatally injured while working in California. His mother, blessed with inner strength and good entrepreneurial skills, provided a normal and comfortable life for Jim and his older sister, Enola. After graduating from Millersburg Military Academy in Millersburg, KY, he studied physics for one year at The Citadel and one year at Eastern Kentucky State College. He then received a congressional appointment to West Point in 1950.

Academics presented no problem to Jim. He was famous for asking on the way to class, “What is today’s assignment?” and then maxing the writ. A versatile person, he was at various times a member of the French Club, the Russian Club, the Spanish Club, the German Club, and the Debate Council. Jim was interested in athletics and excelled in all of them. He was an easygoing cadet and had a great sense of humor.

During his senior year, while hospitalized at the Post Hospital, Jim met Army Nurse 1LT Elizabeth “Betty” Kohler. Jim had chosen to serve in the Air Force upon graduation and had orders for flight training in Bartow, FL. There was one problem: Betty had orders for San Antonio, TX. After a whirlwind courtship, they were married 21 Jul 1954 in the Catholic Chapel at West Point. Jim reported for duty in Florida, and Betty was able to join him a few months later.

Jim’s flight training continued in San Angelo, TX, and then he attended a B-29 course in San Antonio. His next assignment was with the Strategic Air Command, flying B-47s, in the 70th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Little Rock AFB, AR, and later flying B-52s in the 384th Bomb Wing at Little Rock. Much of his duty at Little Rock was spent on reflex action.

In 1961, Jim was assigned to study at the University of Southern California, where he received two master’s degrees, in aerospace engineering (guided missiles) and mechanical engineering, in 1963. He subsequently worked for three years on various systems, including launch vehicles (such as the Agena) at the Space Systems Division in Los Angeles.

 In 1966, Jim transitioned into the O-1 aircraft to go to Viet Nam as a forward air controller. Jim flew 157 combat missions for 366 combat hours and 102 out-of-country missions, between June and December 1966, from Tan Son Nhut and Danang. During this period, Jim was awarded the Silver Star for his part in the recovery of a downed American pilot. According to the citation, “on that date, Captain Kirwin, at great personal risk, descended to tree-top level in his O1-E to divert fire and attention from a downed American pilot. With over 150 hostile troops in the immediate area, CPT Kirwin was subjected to intense ground fire. Repeated passes at this dangerous level were made with CPT Kirwin firing his M-16 at the numerous soldiers.” Jim was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for aiding in finding and destroying large amounts of supplies and munitions as well as automatic weapons sites in North Viet Nam, while placing himself at great personal risk. His decorations also included 15 Air Medals and the Purple Heart.

Returning to the U.S., Jim spent three years as the Air Force liaison officer at the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, CA. Afterwards, he worked on missiles at Air Force Headquarters in the Pentagon.

In 1971, Jim retired with disability due to a heart condition and returned to the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake as an engineer on the AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missile. Jim had found his niche. He loved the desert, the work environment and, most of all, the people with whom he associated every day. He definitely had more time for his family. During the fall, the Kirwins attended many football games, both high school and college, watching their sons take to the gridiron. It was not unusual for them to drive the 150 miles to Los Angeles to cheer for the Lakers during basketball season.

Jim enjoyed woodworking, and his biggest endeavor was a canoe that he hoped to finish some day. Wherever the Kirwins moved, the canoe went too, and it made at least two cross-country trips with the family. Never finished, it was lovingly christened “Kirwin’s Folly.” Another love was the outdoors, especially the mountains.

“Living on the edge” and taking an occasional calculated risk were part of Jim’s make-up. His love of the mountains found Jim riding his Honda 90 near Silverton, CO, on 8 Sep 1974. His friends reported that he laid his bike down and apparently died instantly— three days before his 44th birthday. His family was devastated, but there was some small consolation in believing he met his Creator while doing what he loved.

A memorial service held in Jim’s honor at the base chapel at China Lake was attended by colleagues and the family’s many friends. Two days later, the family held a religious service in Maysville and buried his ashes in Mason County Cemetery. His friend and classmate, Barron (Duke) Fredricks, attended, as well as a color guard from Wright Patterson AFB, OH. His ashes remained there until June 2005, when his daughter, Michele, returned to Kentucky and brought her dad home. His wish had been to have his ashes scattered in the nearby desert and mountains. Now Jim could leave the “bonds of earth … tread the sanctity of space, put out his hand, and touch the face of God.” We love you. We miss you. Requiescat in pace.

At the time of his death, Jim was survived by his wife Betty and their three children: James P., Michele, and Thomas. Also surviving were his mother; his sister Enola and her husband Carl; and their two children, Cindy and Carl, Jr.

Wife Betty Kirwin and roommate Dick Hobbs

Originally published in SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2006 TAPS

class of 1954 home «    “grip hands” home «    eulogies «