VOLK FIELD, Wis. --
More than 61 years after 1st Lt. Jerome Volk's F-80 Shooting Star fighter jet was shot down over the skies of North Korea, the Wisconsin Air National Guard base bearing his name held a formal memorial ceremony July 11 for his family and guests.
"He was my stable friend. He meant a lot to me," said Don Volk, 85, Jerome's younger brother and next of kin who kept alive the hope that Jerome's remains would someday be recovered and returned. After all these years, that day has yet to come.
"We waited nearly 62 years to find out whatever was going to happen," Don continued. "It's hard for me to talk about -I know we're never going to get anything back. I just decided, I'm 85, not in the best of health anymore ... I want to close it out."
Jerome was born March 17, 1925 in Harvey, N.D., and after his family moved to Milwaukee, he graduated from Rufus King High School in 1943. Shortly after graduation he joined the U.S. Army's enlisted reserve corps and began air cadet training June 22. Six months later he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and flew P-51 Mustangs during the remainder of the war. Now a first lieutenant, Jerome joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 126th Fighter Squadron in January 1949, and was called to active duty with his squadron two years later.
Jerome's final flight - a strafing mission against communist Chinese forces in North Korea - began shortly after 3 p.m. on Nov. 7, 1951. About two hours after departing the U.S. Air Force Base at Suwon, South Korea, Jerome reported that his tip tanks - fuel tanks positioned at the wingtips - were not working and that he would return for repairs when he was down to 150 gallons of fuel. About seven minutes later the right napalm bomb was damaged, spraying napalm everywhere. Less than two minutes later the entire tail section came off, and the F-80 Shooting Star rolled uncontrollable at an estimated 200 mph. He was the first Wisconsin Air National Guard pilot killed in the Korean War.
"The other members of the strafing mission only witnessed a fiery ball," Kevin Barry, Jerome's great-nephew, said at the ceremony. Kevin wrote a 10-minute speech about his great-uncle when he was in fifth grade, drawing from official military documents his grandfather provided. Now a college graduate, he updated the speech for the July 11 memorial.
Jerome was unable to position his wounded aircraft to eject, and the jet struck the ground at an 80-degree angle. After years of searching, he was presumed dead on Dec. 31, 1953.
The Wisconsin National Guard rededicated the part of Camp Williams used by the Air National Guard as Volk Field. The following year, the Wisconsin legislature officially approved the name change.
But the base is not Jerome's only namesake - Don named his daughter, who goes by the name Jerri, after the fallen Airman.
"My dad has relived to me the day he came home from work and his dad was standing in the big glass window - sobbing, shoulders shaking - and the military had just been there with the news that [Jerry] was missing in action," she recalled. "I think [my dad] will find a sense of peace with this. It means a lot to him to really honor his brother."
Kevin, Jerri's son, agreed.
"I think [this memorial] means a lot to my grandpa," he said. "I think it's coming to peace with the fact that we probably won't find his remains but that we don't really need to - this base is named after him and the Air National Guard clearly hasn't forgotten about it. I think his sacrifice has been immortalized."
Jerome's memorial marker joins the headstones of Pvt. Robert Williams, Lt. Col. Charles Williams and Brig. Gen. Hugh Simonson, as well as the memorial marker for Col. Jack King, in Memorial Cemetery at the foot of Long Bluff near the main gate.
Col. Gary Ebben, Volk Field commander, said he was honored to host the ceremony.
"It's certainly a personal event for them. It appears to have met a real need for them," Ebben said. "It's just a privilege and an honor to be a part of it."
Don said he would give the flag from the July 11 ceremony to his youngest daughter. His oldest daughter has the flag from the ceremony when Volk Field was renamed.
"The name will go on forever," he said of the Air National Guard base being renamed for his brother. "It meant something to my father - he was military, too. He was in World War I. He was a corporal. It meant a lot to him and my mother."
Kevin said that, despite never having the opportunity to know his great-uncle, he feels well acquainted with Jerome Volk.
"It is very evident that his spirit lives on through the efforts of both my grandfather and the Wisconsin Air National Guard," he said.
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