CHARLESTON, W.Va. —
December 7th is a day seared into the memory of our nation. For most Americans, December 7 marks the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the beginning of the United States’ entry into World War II. For West Virginia, this date has another significant meaning, as it is the birthdate of the founder of the West Virginia Air National Guard (WVANG), a World War II hero and living West Virginia legend Brig. Gen. (ret.) James Kemp McLaughlin.
In the United States military, we prioritize scholarly aptitude and encourage our Soldiers and Airmen to be well versed in the history of their respective service, our past leaders and the impacts they have made. The same rings true for all West Virginians, who should know and understand the giants among us who paved the way for how we live, work and succeed as a state.
Before the U.S. Air Force was its own separate branch, Kemp McLaughlin, a native of Braxton County, was setting a course for excellence in service through the U.S. Army Air Corps as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot. His legacy and contributions to American air superiority and the State of West Virginia should not be overlooked and today, on his 101st birthday, we pay tribute to him.
McLaughlin, who in 1941 was turning just 23 years old, had less than a year earlier joined the service, not knowing how the attack on Pearl Harbor on his birthday would forever change the trajectory of his life.
By 1942, McLaughlin had concluded training and was sent to Europe to join the ranks of the Mighty 8th, or what is known as the Eighth Air Force, the unit assigned to carry out strategic bombing campaigns in France, Germany and the Low Countries during World War II. During his first mission to bomb steel mills in France, McLaughlin's aircraft took multiple direct hits causing a massive fire and injuring the radio operator. While under enemy fire, McLaughlin engaged in air-to-air combat with this German fighter before the gunner was able to take out the aircraft.
In reflecting upon his first contact with the enemy during World War II, McLaughlin stated that these initial raids would “separate the men from the boys.” He also knew that his chances of survival would diminish with each flight he took part in, yet he continued to push forward and make significant contributions to the Allied effort in Europe.
Before the war’s end, McLaughlin had taken part in some of the most pivotal air raids in history. He served as a lead bomber in the mission to attack ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt, Germany – which is the largest aerial battle in history resulting in a 25% loss of the American force and destroyed more than 70% of the German ball bearing facilities. He also took part in raids to bomb facilities in Norway, halting the German’s efforts to produce an atomic bomb and provided air support to ground troops, clearing a path for ensuing battles to take place.
McLaughlin flew 39 bombing missions during World War II, fighting America’s battles over the European skies. The missions he took part in laid the foundation for what is now known as American air superiority, a cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force’s warfighting strategy and a pinnacle of our National Defense Strategy.
While McLaughlin’s participation in World War II helped lay the framework for American military strategy, his greatest legacy here at home will be remembered as his return to West Virginia and his efforts in the formation of the West Virginia Air National Guard.
Named as the WVANG’s first commander, Lt. Col. McLaughlin helped establish the organization in 1947 and remained in leadership positions until his retirement as brigadier general in 1977. During that 30-year span, he helped grow and nurture the WVANG, including leading the unit during an active duty deployment during the Korean War.
Lest one think that McLaughlin is only defined by his military service, it must be noted that while still serving, he also took on leadership roles in the civilian community, serving as a Kanawha County Commissioner from 1962-1968, and was appointed to the West Virginia House of Delegates from 1974 to 1976.
Gen. McLaughlin has been and continues to be an exemplary West Virginian and true American patriot. His legacy reaches far and wide across this great state and nation. His leadership, tenacity and courage has paved the way for generations of Citizen Airmen to serve their state and country in times of peace and times of conflict. It is all because one man had a vision for a better future for West Virginia and for us all.
Today and every day, we in the West Virginia National Guard are thankful for the selfless service of Brig. Gen. (ret.) James Kemp McLaughlin and wish him a happy 101st birthday. May we never lose focus of the contributions of one of our most revered veterans and West Virginia heroes.