Herman Eugene Kiefer
LANCASTER, CA — Herman Eugene (Gene) Kiefer III died in March 2019, after a brave battle with pneumonia. He was 86 years old.
Gene was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, in November 1932. He grew up in Ware Shoals, South Carolina, where he was given the nickname “Dixie” by family and friends.
As a young man, he enjoyed Boy Scout trips with his father, Herman Eugene Kiefer Jr., and listening to his mother Lois play the piano. Gene and his friends enjoyed childhood adventures on Turkey Creek. Sometimes, he even let his younger sister Priscilla tag along.
In the summer, Gene would travel with his family to visit relatives in Maine. His first job was building a wooden trap and catching lobsters that he sold to tourists.
At age 14, young Gene traveled alone to Atlanta to take an examination for his ham radio operator’s license. He returned home and built his own ham radio, then constructed his own radio antennae on the roof of his parent’s house. He studied Latin and Spanish in high school and practiced his language skills on the radio. Gene contacted ham radio operators in more than 100 countries and earned a pair of certificates from the Incorporated Radio Society of Great Britain.
Gene attended Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. As a third-generation Lehigh student, Gene was a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society. He participated in the Reserve Officers Training Corps and was a member of the Pershing Rifles drill team, as well as the Arnold Air Society. A brother of Delta Phi, Gene was elected president of his fraternity during his senior year. He graduated with honors, earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1955.
Gene received commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force and began active duty in March 1956. He served numerous assignments around the United States and across the globe. As a C-130 navigator with Military Air Transport Service at Evreux Air Base in France, Gene flew Cold-War missions through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In 1967, Gene volunteered for combat in Southeast Asia. He served with the 606th Air Commando Squadron at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand, flying the A-26 Invader on night bombing missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
He completed his combat tour, returned stateside, purchased a 1967 Ford Mustang, and dated a pretty flight attendant. During this time, Gene also became a member in good standing of the International Association of Turtles, and he carried several membership keys to Playboy Clubs across the United States.
In early 1970, Gene returned to Southeast Asia as a Weapons System Officer (“Guy in Back”) of the F-4 Phantom, serving with the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing. On 20 January 1971, Gene’s aircraft caught fire after takeoff from Da Nang Air Base. “We headed toward the water, de-armed and released the ordinance and then ejected,” Gene said during a 1971 interview carried by the United Press International, Saigon. Gene and his front seater, Captain David Warner, both parachuted into the South China Sea and were rescued by helicopter. Gene safely completed his combat tour in 1972. Fear didn’t enter into his thinking. He flew 701 combat missions in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
“I’ve done an important job here which has been exciting and has given me a sense of accomplishment,” he told The Air Force Times in a 1972 interview. “I’m going to miss all my friends, because this has been a tour I won’t ever forget. Another thing I won’t forget are my buddies who are prisoners of war in North Vietnam and those good friends of mine who are missing in action.”
In the mid-1970s, Gene served with the 10th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Hahn Air Base in Germany, where he met his wife of 43 years, Maria. They sang and danced to their favorite ABBA songs in a beautiful house surrounded by lush vineyards on the Mosel River. In the late 1970s, Gene brought his wife to the United States where they soon welcomed their daughter, Katrin, at Langley Air Force Base. Later, Gene was stationed at Rhein Main Air Base in Germany during the early 1980s when his son Rupert was born.
Gene’s final duty assignment was as Squadron Commander with the 4th Combat Support Group at Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. He retired from active duty in March 1984, as Lieutenant Colonel. Gene spent 28 years in uniform, half of which were served abroad. He spent 14 years and 1 month overseas, including a temporary duty assignment at Thule Air Base in Greenland, located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Gene logged 6,067.7 hours of flying time in military aircraft, including the C-130, C-131, C-135, A-26, and F-4.
His military decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross with Six Oak Leaf Clusters, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal with Forty-Three Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Six Oak Leaf Clusters and Combat “V”, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal with One Oak Leaf Cluster, Vietnam Service Ribbon with Nine Bronze Stars, Air Force Overseas Ribbon, and the Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon.
Following his Air Force Career, Gene moved his family to Southern California’s Antelope Valley. He worked for Rockwell International from 1985 through 1990 as a civilian engineer on the B-1B Lancer. As a member of the Checkout and Acceptance Department, Gene worked on each of the 100 of the B-1B’s that were built in Palmdale. Gene was immeasurably proud of his military and civilian careers, both in and around the aircraft that delivered peace through superior firepower.
In his retirement, Gene enjoyed spending time with his family, watching the Atlanta Braves play baseball on television, drinking India Pale Ale, quality time with his beloved cats, and driving his Audi roadster with the top down and the wind blowing through his silver hair.
Gene loved to travel. The Taj Mahal, Iguazu Falls in South America, and the 1958 World’s Fair in Belgium were just a few of his many stops. In 2012, he joined the Seven Continents Club, when he sailed to Antarctica as a passenger on board the expedition ship “Polar Pioneer.”
He will be remembered for his kindness, his handsome looks, and his remarkable intelligence. Gene was a champion of modesty; a soft-spoken and gracious gentleman who never outgrew the Southern hospitality that he learned in his youth.
Gene is scheduled for in-ground burial this summer at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.