Con McGrath profiles Colonel John Riley Kane – Recipient of the Medal of Honor, for his courageous leadership of Operation Tidal Wave


On the 1st of August 1, 1943, a daring low level air assault took place. Consisting of over 170 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers, the attack was perhaps the most spectacular American bombing mission of World War II. The target was the oil refineries at Ploesti, in Romania, which supplied two-thirds of Germany’s petroleum production at that stage of the war.

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill considered these refineries so important that he believed their destruction would deal a “knockout blow” to the German war effort. The raid was codenamed Operation Tidal Wave, and led by an indestructible Irish-American officer named John Riley ‘Killer’ Kane.

A native of Texas, Kane was born on January 5, 1907, the son of a Baptist preacher.
A biography of the war hero ‘Killer’ Kane by Fillmore Calhoun states: “The Killer’s father has about two-thirds Indian blood, and there is a little Cherokee on his mother’s side. Other than that, his ancestry springs vaguely from Scotland and Ireland, with a touch of Dutch for stubbornness.”

Kane would study medicine at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he was a star basketball and baseball player. He was fortunate to be one of the survivors of the January 1927 collision between the bus carrying the basketball team and a train in Round Rock, Texas. This tragic occasion would not be the last time Kane came close to death.

In June 1931 Kane joined the Army Air Corps. By July 1942 he was a Major, and was assigned to the 98th Bomb Group, known by their nickname of the “Pyramiders”. While in north Africa he flew 43 combat missions and eventually was promoted to full Colonel and assumed command of the 98th. It was during this time that his nickname of “Killer Kane” became cemented both among his men and the enemy.

He had received the nickname originally from the fact that one of his friends had been named Rogers and because they were always seen together they became known as Buck Rogers and Killer Kane – after two fictional characters in the ‘Buck Rogers’ comic strip. The nickname, it was felt, suited Kane, because of his tenacity and stubbornness in battle.

On one mission, Kane earned the Silver Star when his plane became separated from the formation and was attacked from the rear by an enemy fighter. Although the tail and top turrets of his bomber became inoperative, he successfully outmanoeuvred the pursuing Nazi ME-110 through eight different attacks. The fighter eventually exhausted its ammunition and was forced to break off the attack without causing any appreciable damage to Kane’s aircraft.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own