Heroes in the new Kankakee County Museum exhibit
Kankakee County Heroes who are part of the new modern wars exhibit at the Kankakee County Museum.
Pat O’Brien (1894-1920), of Momence, had a difficult road to heroism in World War I. An early pilot, he joined the American flying corps to fight Pancho Villa, but saw no action. Bored and restless, he volunteered for the Great War before the United States even entered the war. He left his mother’s home on the north side of Momence and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.
In a dogfight over Liettres, France, he took a bullet in the throat and was shot down. In those days, with no parachutes, losing in aerial combat usually meant either a fiery death or a fatal crash.
But O’Brien survived.
Captured by the Germans, he jumped out of the window of a moving train. He walked 72 days to Holland and tunneled underneath an electrified fence to reach freedom. He wrote a best-selling book about his escape and parlayed his celebrity into a speaking tour and an appearance in a cowboy movie.
He was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel Dec. 17, 1920. His death was ruled a suicide but was regarded as controversial at the time and ever since.
Col. Jim Kasler
Jim Kasler (1926-2014), of Momence, flew with distinction in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
During World War II, he finished high school in three and a half years, hoping to enlist before the war was over. He was assigned to be a tail gunner on a B-29 bomber because he could squeeze into a tiny space.
He completed pilot training and flew 100 missions in Korea, shooting down six MiGs, becoming a jet ace. On May 15, 1952, he and his wingman downed three Chinese planes, one of them piloted by Mao Tse-tung’s son.
In Vietnam, Kasler piloted F-105 Thunderchiefs. He earned his first Air Force Cross for leading a near-flawless attack that turned Hanoi oil storage tanks into billowing fireballs.
On his 91st mission, he earned his second Air Force Cross, Aug. 8, 1966. He circled back after an attack to provide cover for another endangered pilot. He was shot down when flak ruptured the hydraulic controls in his plane. His right leg was shattered as he ejected.
Imprisoned for the next six and a half years in North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps, he was starved and tortured, but never cooperated with his captors. His courage in captivity made him the first pilot to earn a third Air Force Cross.
Kasler operated South Shore Golf Club in Kankakee County for years after the war, before passing away at age 87. The veterans memorial in Momence, as well as a new memorial at South Shore, honor his service.
Adm. Mike Boorda
Mike Boorda (1939-1996) was the first man in history to rise from seaman recruit to command the U.S. Navy.
In May 16, 1996, he took his own life when he was about to be interviewed by Newsweek reporters who questioned his right to wear two tiny “V” pins, signifying combat valor in Vietnam. The Navy later ruled that Boorda was entitled to the decorations. The reporters apologized.
Boorda deserves to be remembered for what he did the rest of his life. He was a standout athlete in baseball and football in Momence, but lied about his age to join the Navy at 16.
He rose to Petty Officer First Class and was selected for Officer Candidate School. By 1971, he had graduated from the University of Rhode Island.
Considered an expert in personnel, he commanded a destroyer, and eventually the Sixth Fleet Battle Force. In 1993, he was in charge of all UN humanitarian relief efforts in Bosnia. He was made chief of Naval Operations in 1994, to improve the Navy after the Tailhook scandal.
In 2000, Momence unveiled the “wave” sculpture in his memory.
Capt. Ryan Beaupre
Capt. Ryan Beaupre (1972-2003), of St. Anne, was among the first to fall in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He became the first combat casualty from Kankakee County since Vietnam.
Beaupre was one of a dozen men, four Marines and eight British commandos, who died in March 2003, in Kuwait when the CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter he was piloting crashed during a mission.
A Bishop McNamara High School and Illinois Wesleyan University graduate, he had once teamed with three others at Mac to win the Class A State 1,600 meter relay.
An honor roll student and an Illinois State Scholar, he was a considerate man. When the time came to make calls home from Kuwait, he stepped aside so the married men could call first.
Hundreds attended his funeral, which drew international television coverage.