CAPTAIN LELAND KIRKEMO, USN Ret.
It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our father, Leland Erwin Kirkemo, on September 23, 2010 in Oak Harbor. He died of complications resulting from his fifteen plus year battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Dad was born May 28, 1920 in a one-room log cabin in Wahena Township, Cass County, MN. His parents were Thorleif and Lena (Lone) Kirkemo. His father immigrated to the US as a boy from Norway with his family in 1903.
Dad grew up on a small farm in Itasca County. His dad was the local mailman, and his Mom taught school at the local one-room school house. He later attended Deer River High School where he graduated at the age of 16 in 1936. Stories of his generation walking 6-8 miles to school in all kinds of weather are not without merit as he often did this.
These were Depression years, and work was difficult to find. He worked for a time in the woods with the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), and developed some skills in boxing. He had some success as a local Golden Gloves boxer.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US entrance into World War II, Dad enlisted in the US Navy in February 1942. After receiving training as a radio operator, he was ordered to Jacksonville, Fl. He was then selected for naval flight training and travelled to numerous locations to receive that training. After receiving his Navy Wings, he was sent to the Pacific Theater and flew various missions out of Tinian Island.
While travelling to various assignments while in training status, he had occasions to visit his family in Minnesota. On one significant occasion, he was preparing to catch a bus at Grand Rapids, MN to return to Minneapolis. As luck would have it, an attractive trainee nurse was waiting for the same bus. Her name was Louise Liermann. Recognizing a good thing when he saw one, he managed to meet her on the bus; the beginning of what would prove to be more than a meaningful relationship. They would correspond and get together whenever the opportunity arose.
At the end of the war, Dad considered his future prospects and resolved to make the Navy his career. He also wisely decided to propose to Louise, and she accepted. They were married August 25, 1946 in Knapp, Dunn County, WI, about one block from the house in which Louise was born.
After getting married the two of them began their naval career together. That career was spiced up with the addition of two sons and a daughter. The career path had many stops including Atlantic City, NJ; Minneapolis, MN; Monterey, CA; Norfolk, VA; China Lake, CA; Montgomery, AL, Oak Harbor, WA; Bellevue, NB; Oak Harbor again; Washington, DC; Concord, CA; San Diego, CA, Washington, DC; and finally back to Oak Harbor. During this time Dad was rewarded with promotions and finally achieving the rank of Captain.
There were numerous highlights and command responsibilities along the way. He had several deployments as an aviator, both to the Atlantic and the Pacific theaters. One of his commands was Heavy Attack Squadron Two out of Oak Harbor. He flew the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior off the USS Coral Sea. His year of command was highlighted by the squadron winning the Navy “E” and the CNO Safety Award. He also served as CO of VAH-123.
His first shipboard command was the USS Haleakala, an ammunition supply ship. His tour of command included operations off the coast of Viet Nam where, among other key vessels, they resupplied the battleship New Jersey (BB-62).
Dad’s deep draft, and major command assignment, was the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2). His tour on the Iwo was perhaps his penultimate assignment in his career. This tour was made memorable because the Iwo was the primary recovery ship for the Apollo-13 space mission. He had the ship positioned within view of the landing of the Apollo capsule, and they literally wrote the book for future recovery efforts. It is not well known that astronaut James Lovell played Dad in the Apollo 13 movie. Sadly, the part was not recognized in the credits.
Dad’s last duty assignment was as Chief of Staff for the Whidbey Air Wing at Oak Harbor. Dad and Mom fell in love with area during their first assignment there and early on decided that Oak Harbor would be their permanent home. They designed their retirement home and Dad built it himself while transitioning into retirement. Both became active in community activities and groups. Dad joined the Oak Harbor Rotary Club, and served as president from 1983-1984. In addition, he actively participated in The Navy League, the Deception Pass Power Squadron, and the Oak Harbor Yacht Club.
Trying to describe our dad in a few words is an impossible task. He valued integrity and competence in the people he worked with, and he was not a proponent of shades of gray. He enjoyed golf, birds, and boating. What he valued most, however, was his family. Louise was his safe harbor and the great love of his life, and his kids were his greatest pride. He is, and will be, much missed.
Leland Kirkemo is survived by two sisters: Leona Groth of Deer River, MN, and Alyce Mae Anderson (Ralph) of Heber Springs, AR.
Louise survives her husband of 64 years. Their three children also survive him:
Gordon and Jane (Ragland) Kirkemo of Olympia, WA.
Curtis and Gabi (Happel) Kirkemo, of West Linn, OR. They are the parents of Kevin and Lisa. Kevin and Lisa are students at Oregon State University.
Kathy Kirkemo-Clark of Redmond, WA. Kathy is the mother of Molly Louise (Tim) Mastromonica. Molly and Tim are the parents of Lee and Louise’s latest pride and joy, their first great-grandchild, Evan Mastromonica who arrived April 29, 2010.
A Funeral Service will be Thursday, September 30, 2010, 2:00 p.m. at NAS Whidbey Island Base Chapel, CDR Michael Hakanson, Chaplain Corps USN, officiating. Private family committal will take place at Tahoma National Cemetery on Friday, Oct. 1. Memorials may be made to the A-3 Skywarrior Whidbey Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 1402, Oak Harbor, WA 98277. Family and friends are encouraged to sign the online guest register at www.whidbeymemorial.com.