John Kirla

“I was very confident and comfortable with the Mustang. There was never any hesitation; I never had fear the way some guys had it—none of that. I just thought ‘Gee, I have a job to do. Here they are. I’m going to down as many as I can.”

John Kirla has the stories to back up his confidence. Also known as “Big John” due to his broad, six foot plus frame, an unusual size for a fighter pilot, Kirla flew a Mustang named “Spook.” The name materialized because Big John wore soft-soled shoes, and despite his size, could sneak up on anything, like a ghost, including the Germans. With “Spook,” Kirla created maneuvers of such force that he earned the distinction of being the first combat pilot to have a G-meter installed in his plane. As described by Kirla, “Occasionally we ran into fighters, and I had the problem of bending the wings of my airplane in turns. I pulled a 10.5G and bent my wings four times.” After this, the G-meter was installed.

When Big John left his hometown, Port Chester, New York, to serve in the war, he brought with him a quiet and gentle manner as well as the notion that there was a task to be completed as efficiently as possible. Maintaining that notion, he racked up 11.5 victories in nine months of aerial combat. In June of 1944, he was assigned to the 362nd Fighter Squadron, 357th Fighter Group. It was a seasoned unit, and he was assigned a well-used P-51B, flying as a wingman with several flight leaders. His will to fight emerged barefaced when he scored his first victories late June, 1944.

Big John relates a story of how his notion to effectively complete a task nearly got him court-martialed. He explains he was on a mission in the middle of July, 1944. A group of B-17s finished dropping their bombs, allowing one squadron to go down and look for targets of opportunity, while two other squadrons stayed with the bombers escorting them home.
John flew with the group heading down in search of targets, acting as wingman to his flight leader. A fight broke between the 109s and a Mustang. John’s leader climbed above, but John saw Mustangs with 109s on their tails. He peeled off and dove down. What happened after is best told with John’s words:

“I found a 109 that was on one of our Mustang’s tails and dived in behind him at a high speed…I was pulling 5G or 6G to stay with him. I guess he realized I slipped in behind him, and he pulled nearly vertical, breaking off from the other airplane. That’s when I got him. I fired a burst into his fuselage and wings…”

Immediately following this heroism, John and a friend, Otto Jenkins headed home, but encountered another 109, and took it down as well. They shared the victory with half a kill each.

However, upon return, John’s flight leader wanted him court-martialed for leaving the group. What happened instead? John’s leader was transferred from the outfit and the flight was given
to John.

When he returned to civilian life, John went into business with his younger brother Stanley, a veteran of the Korean War, awarded the Purple Heart, Silver, and Bronze star. They created a diverse construction and development company and built a marina in Connecticut that operated twenty years. His family eventually moved to, and still resides in Deep River, Connecticut running a large equipment rental center. John still maintains his private pilot license and flies his Cessna from his home base in Chester, Connecticut.