The Airmen's Stories - F/O J W Kerwin
John William Kerwin was born in Toronto on 7th May 1918 and educated at Malvern College. He entered the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario in 1935. He left the following year, being unable to manage financially.
Above: 1 RCAF Squadron not long after arriving in England, Kerwin front right.
He next applied for a commission in the Royal Canadian Air Force in November 1937. Kerwin had already obtained a private pilot's licence but for unknown reasons he did not begin his service until early 1939.
Following his initial training he was awarded his wings on 2nd September 1939, the day after Germany invaded Poland.
Posted to No.1 (Fighter) Squadron RCAF (operating Hurricanes), Kerwin arrived in England in June 1940.
He was detached to RAF Uxbridge from 5th to 9th July for a R/T procedure course. On 31st August he claimed a Do17 destroyed.
On 1st September Kerwin was shot down in an engagement with Do17s and Me110s. He baled out, with burns.
The incident was recorded at the time:
Ed Reyno, Bev Christmas and Tommy Little shared in the damage of another bomber and Otto Peterson also claimed a damaged. But Johnny Kerwin turned in the star performance. In the mass head-on attack, he fired seventy rounds into one of the enemy machines that sent it spinning into the ground. Then he spotted eight Messerschmitt 110s chasing two Hurricanes and gave chase. Singling out the rear German fighter, he fired what was the last of his ammunition into it. At that moment cannon-fire pierced his auxiliary fuel tank causing a fire in the cockpit. Kerwin wasted no time jumping over the side and parachuted into a farmer’s field near Maidstone. Except for hand and face burns he escaped serious injury.
His Hurricane, P3963, crashed and burned out at Shipbourne, north of Tonbridge, Kent.
He later destroyed a Do17 and a Me110. He was posted to 112 (RCAF) Squadron on the 2nd, as non-effective sick.
However Kerwin’s wounds turned out to be serious enough for him to be repatriated to Canada where he served as an instructor with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Brandon, Manitoba.
In mid-1942 he was posted to 111 (F) squadron flying P-40 Kittyhawks in British Columbia. With the Japanese threat looming in the North-West, this squadron was soon sent up to Alaska to help defend the area along with the American forces already posted there.
The Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands prompted the US Command to request Canadian squadrons moved to forward bases to assist in the defence of the island chain. Newly-promoted to Squadron Leader and CO of 111 Squadron, Kerwin set off with 6 other Kittyhawks for Umnak Island from their base in Anchorage on 16th July 1942.
The Aleutians have the dubious reputation as having some of the most inhospitable weather for flying due to dense fog which can quickly shroud the rugged and mountainous terrain. During the flight, the pilots became lost in dense fog and five of them crashed, including S/Ldr. Kerwin. His body was recovered and buried with full military honours at Fort Glenn, Umnak Island. It was later exhumed and reburied at Fort Richardson, Alaska (below).
Above photograph courtesy of Virginia M. Walker, Director Fort Richardson & Sitka National Cemeteries
(Above: Kerwin's Canadian Memorial Cross, suspended from a 'sweetheart' badge)
With acknowledgment and thanks to Adam J. Haslett for the majority of the text and all photographs except that of the grave at Fort Richardson.