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War medal returns to family after 61 years

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Lealan Buehrer
  • 182nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

No matter whether they were in Illinois, Wisconsin, or anywhere in between, Annie and Rich would see contrails in the sky from a jet plane flying high overhead, and their mother would remind them, “There’s Dad flying up in heaven. Dad’s watching.”

Ann J. Ward was just 2.5 years old and Richard L. Ward II only 3 months old when their father perished in an F-84D Thunderstreak crash on Runway 31 of what is now the 182nd Airlift Wing at the General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport. Circumstance stole their chance to grow up with their father when his aircraft failed to reach safe flying speed, causing it to collide with terrain during a drill-weekend training flight.

Tragedy could have closed the family’s chapter in Peoria that day, and yet 61 years later the Ward siblings found themselves reconnected with both blood and military family members Aug. 27, 2020, at the unit where their father last served.

Air Force Capt. Richard L. Ward was a military hero long before becoming a fighter pilot with the Illinois Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. In addition to his Distinguished Flying Crosses, he wore the decorations of Presidential Unit Citation and five Air Medals. He flew F-86 Sabrejets with the 25th Fighter Interceptor Squadron “Checkertails” in the Korean War and earned three bravery citations during his 70 sorties. Prior to that, he survived a fiery T-33 Shooting Star crash landing in Denver, Colorado — the aftermath being him later marrying his hospital nurse, Joan; ejected from an F-86 Sabrejet over the mountains of Kyushu, Japan, during a violent storm; and parachuted from a burning plane in Georgia.

His warrior spirit never waned and he kept flying, joining the Illinois National Guard in his hometown in 1956. By the time his life came to an untimely end shortly after 2:40 p.m. June 6, 1959, he had logged more than 1,500 flying hours and earned two Distinguished Flying Cross decorations for heroism during aerial flight. Some of the captain’s military belongings — including a parachute, helmet, and the Distinguished Flying Cross medal and ribbon — went to his brother upon his passing, and life continued on for the family as best it could.

His widow, Joan, moved the family back to her hometown of Delavan, Wisconsin. Following a decade of studies and work in anthropology and public health, Ann became a humanitarian and spent 18 years in the Middle East and Afghanistan with various international organizations, as well as the United Nations. Rich earned a degree in industrial psychology, married, and raised children, who then had their own children. When Richard Lee Ward IV was born in July 2020, Rich felt an urge to reach out to his long-lost relatives and did so by finding them through social media.

When he found first-cousin Tim Ward of Peoria, Tim said “Hey, I’ve got something you might want to have.”

By happenstance, Tim was a family friend of Air Force Col. Daniel McDonough, the current commander of the 182nd Airlift Wing. Tim had found military memorabilia while going through boxes belonging to his departed father — Capt. Ward’s brother — and consulted with McDonough. The colonel immediately recognized the Distinguished Flying Cross as tracing back to Capt. Richard Ward. Tim considered mailing it to the family or meeting them halfway to Wisconsin to return it, but McDonough insisted on inviting the Ward families on base for a ceremony to honor Capt. Ward’s memory and celebrate the occasion of returning the medal back to the captain’s children.

“Typically, when someone gets a D.F.C., it’s because they’ve taken great risk to themselves,” McDonough said during the ceremony, “typically saving someone’s life on the ground at great risk to their own. So, they don’t give these things away just because you were there. You had to do something really amazing.”

Capt. Ward, in fact, earned the decoration during battle with enemy MiG-15 fighter jets that put he and his team outnumbered 6-to-8 during the Korean War May 14, 1953. His selfless judgement and courageous combat skill ensured he and his wingman returned home from the fight victorious.

“Capt. Ward was the kind of American hero that our military heritage is built on,” McDonough said. “Before he died, he was an American hero. There’s no other way to put it.”

Capt. Ward’s gravestone reads “The Greater Love,” a reference to a Biblical passage invoking the ultimate sacrifice to give one’s life for friends.

“He did just that. I would say that my life would probably be a little bit different now if he was alive,” Richard said. “It’d just be interesting to know what life would be like if he was around.”

“[Being here is] just a reconnection with a piece of history that I feel like I lost. You know?” said Ann. “And when you’re a kid — 2.5 years old — I remember I’d ask about Dad, and maybe I got a couple piece of information, but I feel like I don’t have the information.”

To help fill some of those gaps, McDonough took the families on a tour of the base after the ceremony, including a static display of the F-84D Thunderstreak, a lineage exhibit of their father’s unit’s emblem, and the C-130H Hercules aircraft that the Peoria unit currently operates.

Rather than say the visit brought closure, Rich said it rekindled family that had become separated when life changed so quickly those decades before.

“So many times you ask people about your dad from people that knew him, and it’s usually ‘Oh, he was good looking, and he was this, and he was a great dad, and he was happy, and he was funny,’ but to come and learn exactly what he did, and where it happened and what kind of man he was. I never heard anything about that stuff, about his bravery and his medals, and so it’s like ‘Oh, my word!’ It’s just unbelievable. It’s almost surreal.”

“We left here. And we left here with memories, some memories, but the death of our father cut the family in some ways. Rich and I did lose a lot,” Ann said. “When I talk about this place, I never, ever thought I would be here — in the Illinois National Guard base — ever in a million years, in Peoria, Illinois. So, thank you all for bringing our families together again.”

The Distinguished Flying Cross was awarded first to U.S. Army Corps Reserve Capt. Charles A. Lindbergh for his solo flight of 3,600 miles across the Atlantic in 1927, a feat which electrified the world and made Lindbergh one of America's most popular heroes, according to the Air Force Personnel Center. It is still awarded to officers or enlisted persons of the U.S. armed forces for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. Both heroism and achievement must be entirely distinctive, involving operations that are not routine.

Editor’s note: Information was used from the Journal Star, Chicago Daily Tribune, Associated Press, and Monroe Funeral Home.