A royal salute: 4th Fighter Wing's history comes home
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 19, 2013 1:50 AM
Col. Caroline Evernham, left, and Judine Heidicker unload the Royal Air Force Kirton in Lindsey sign from a 916th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Monday afternoon. RAF Kirton in Lindsey was the home of each of the Eagle Squadrons -- the units that, today, are part of the U.S. Air Force and housed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base -- during World War II.
To the casual observer, it's just a simple sign -- an oversized piece of plastic bearing a foreign emblem and six words that, to them, have little meaning.
But when 4th Fighter Wing Historian Dr. Roy Heidicker cradled it in his arms Friday morning, those few moments were humbling for a man who understands the significance of "Royal Air Force Kirton in Lindsey" better than most.
"The fact that I'm standing here holding this sign ... life just doesn't get any better," he said. "My glass is half full."
He knows what breathes inside those six words -- the heritage of one of the U.S. Air Force's most storied fighter wings; the stories of sacrifice forged long before the American military entered World War II.
He knows that Kirton in Lindsey, and the squadrons born there, helped define the legacy carried on by aviators currently stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base -- that without the RAF Eagle Squadrons there would be no "Fourth, but First."
So when, during a trip to England last year, Heidicker was informed that due to the closure of RAF Kirton in Lindsey, the base's sign needed a new home, he worked tirelessly to ensure it ended up in Goldsboro.
"The base is no longer there, so it's not like someone can go see Royal Air Force Base Kirton in Lindsey. It's gone," he said. "So we have to retain that heritage here, so when we say, 'The home of the Royal Eagle Squadrons' at the front of base, when it comes to Kirton in Lindsey, we mean it. It's part of our responsibility now to preserve that heritage."
In the beginning, there were three -- three American aviators who forfeited their citizenship to fight for a cause they believed in.
Eugene Quimby "Red" Tobin, Vernon Charles "Shorty" Keough and Andy Mamedoff, Heidicker said, were willing to give their lives to ensure Hitler's forces failed to take England.
"You have to go back all those years and realize that America is at peace, so these are guys who can live a full life. They don't know America is going into World War II. ... They can live the American dream," Heidicker said. "But instead, they saw what was happening in Europe with Hitler having already conquered the European mainland. The only thing that stood between Hitler and total domination was England.
"Knowing that, these guys said, 'I am gonna give up everything I have, including my citizenship, to go and fight for another people against this great evil. They were 100 percent volunteers."
And when the Royal Air Force stood up the first of its three Eagle Squadrons, No. 71 Squadron, Tobin, Keough and Mamedoff were among the "initial cadre" of aviators who took to the skies.
"All three were dead before Pearl Harbor," Heidicker said. "When you talk about dedication and sacrifice, these are the guys."
Within a year, the other two squadrons, No. 121 and No. 133, were activated.
All three were, at one time, stationed at Kirton in Lindsey.
"That part of England is called Lincolnshire and Lincolnshire is know as, 'The home of the Royal Air Force,'" Heidicker said. "The reason is, when you look at a map of England relative to Europe, that's where the German planes would enter England. So if you're going to have your fighter bases, you want them close enough where they don't have to fly a half-hour to get to the incoming Germans."
When the U.S. finally entered the fray, the 4th Fighter Group -- which, today, is Seymour Johnson's 4th Fighter Wing -- was formed.
"These three veteran squadrons became the 4th Fighter Group, so that you had an established cadre of great pilots -- experienced pilots -- to form this group," Heidicker said. "Of course, they would go on to have 1,016 kills."
To Heidicker, ensuring the Kirton in Lindsey sign would find a home on Seymour Johnson was about more than an opportunity to provide Goldsboro residents with a history lesson.
More importantly, it was a chance to, again, pay homage to the 10 American aviators who lost their lives while stationed at the British base -- and to the rest of the forefathers of the 4th Fighter Wing who sacrificed everything for a cause greater than any one man.
"The way that I see it is that the heart of the volunteer that was in the bosom of these amazing guys who went to England and risked all and sacrificed all for another country in the name of freedom, that heart beats within the airmen of Seymour Johnson -- that same heart of the volunteer," Heidicker said. "We can never forget that this is our origin. It is who we were, who we are and who we will always be.
"So it's not just a sign. It's the heart of the volunteer -- the heart of those guys. It's a real legacy."