World War II Medal of Honor recipient John Riley “Killer” Kane was born on January 5, 1907, in McGregor, Texas, the son of John Franklin Kane, a Baptist minister. As a youth Kane lived in Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri as his father traveled to different church assignments. Kane graduated from high school in DeSoto, Missouri. With a brash and outspoken personality, he expressed no interest in following in his father’s footsteps. In 1924 Kane enrolled at Baylor University with intent on becoming a medical doctor majoring in zoology and German. At Baylor he played on both the football and basketball teams, and in 1926 he took part in a halftime fight at a Baylor-Texas A&M football game in which an Aggie player was fatally injured. As a member of the Baylor basketball team on January 22, 1927, Kane was a passenger on the school’s charter bus that was rammed in the side at a railroad crossing in Round Rock on a road trip to Austin. Although Kane was not injured, ten members of the group of twenty-two players, coaches, and fans were killed. After graduating with his A.B. degree from Baylor in 1928, Kane attended medical school at Washington University in St. Louis for two years. He left medical school after determining, “I couldn’t stand all that medical smell, chloroform and ether and all. It actually made me sick.”
After leaving medical school, Kane went to Eagle Springs, Texas, where he worked on his grandfather’s farm for a year and decided to become a pilot. At first, he tried to join the Marine Corps but was told by a recruiter: “Listen, Buddy, you don’t want to learn to fly. It ain’t no different from driving a truck.” In 1932 he joined the United States Army Air Corps at San Antonio and attended flight school at Kelly and Randolph Field, earned his wings, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Officer’s Reserve Corps. In 1933 he served in a variety of positions at Rockwell Field and March Field in California, and at Barksdale Field in Shreveport, Louisiana, until being discharged from active duty. For a time, Kane found employment selling houses and digging ditches for an oil company. He was recalled to active duty and spent several years at Barksdale training pilots for the growing Army Air Corps. In February 1942 Captain Kane was transferred to Lackland Air Force Base as a squadron commander. In July 1942 he was assigned to the Middle East Theater of Operations as a squadron commander of the Ninety-eighth Bombardment Group and attained the rank of major that year. He was promoted to colonel and became commander of the Ninety-eighth in 1943. Colonel Kane accumulated a total of 250 combat hours in forty-three combat missions and received a Silver Star for his performance in outmaneuvering a Messerschmitt 110 during his time in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater of Operations.
John Kane possessed an aggressive personality and a tough domineering manner that inspired both respect and hatred from those that had to deal with him. He could be outspoken and direct in his views, even with his superiors. With members of his own crew, he often was blunt in an effort to maintain a distance; “I was there to try to keep them alive, not to mother them.” Kane was given the nickname “Killer” by fellow pilots who got the name from the character named “Killer Kane” in the Buck Rogers comic strip. The nickname “Killer” fitted Kane’s unique personality and it stuck.
With Kane as their commander, the Ninety-eighth (nicknamed the “Pyramiders”) played a key role in Operation Tidal Wave on August 1, 1943. This operation constituted one of the most daring bombing raids by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in World War II. This mission involved some 179 B-24 Liberators, divided into five groups, in a low level bombing attack on the Nazi-held oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, which was believed to be providing Nazi Germany with 60 percent of their crude oil. Starting from airfields around Benghazi, Libya, the B-24s would fly across the Mediterranean Sea over Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria to Ploesti and then back to North Africa; the round trip mission covered 2,400 miles. From the beginning, Kane expressed misgiving about the mission, contending it was too dangerous, and suggested it was the work of “some idiotic armchair warrior in Washington.” Told the mission would move forward with or without him, Kane toned down his rhetoric but informed his men, “We’re going to knock out Ploesti,” or “die trying.” Planning for the worst, Kane wrote goodbye letters to his parents and wife.
In the early morning of August 1, 1943, 179 B-24s, in five groups, moved down the airfields in Benghazi to begin the 1,350-mile flight to Ploesti. With Kane as the pilot of his own airplane, Hail Columbia, the Ninety-eighth numbered forty-seven and would be the third element in Operation Tidal Wave. Over Bulgaria, the Ninety-eighth encountered dense cumulous clouds which separated them from the first two elements in the flying formation. Alerted by radar, the Germans took measures to prepare for their defenses around Ploesti and removed the surprise element. In spite of the difficulties, Kane ordered his formation to proceed to their designated targets at Ploesti.
Upon their arrival at Ploesti about twenty minutes after the first two groups, Kane’s Ninety-eighth took enemy fire along the railroad from which the Germans operated a disguised flak train equipped with light and heavy anti-aircraft weapons. Since the bombers were so big and so low, the German gunners found it difficult to miss their targets. Equipped with 50-caliber machine guns, the B-24 gunners returned fire and damaged the locomotive’s boiler and eradicated a number of anti-aircraft crews. Kane realized that his assigned target, the Astra Romana complex, had already been attacked and damaged by one of the earlier groups. Determined to keep his group in formation, Kane ordered the Ninety-eighth to proceed to the assigned target. Facing intense anti-aircraft fire from the ground and from Junkers 88’s and Messerschmitt 110’s, the formation under Kane’s direction made their bombing runs through the heavy smoke over the targets previously bombed. A number of the planes from Kane’s group were taken out by some of the delayed-action bombs dropped earlier. The Hail Columbia emerged from the inferno but suffered some serious damage; having lost an engine, a fuselage full of holes, and the main wing spar bent. As the Ninety-eighth raced away from Ploesti and headed toward North Africa, Kane realized his own plane was running low on fuel, and so he ordered his crew to throw out everything except food, water, ammunition, and the guns that still worked. The Hail Columbia managed to make it to Cyprus, where the crew survived the crash landing, after fourteen hours and forty minutes of flying.
The USAAF paid a heavy price for Operation Tidal Wave. It was estimated that the strike hindered the refining capacity at Ploesti by 40 percent, yet within weeks Ploesti was producing more fuel than it had before the raid. Out of the 179 B-24s that were dispatched for the mission, fifty-four aircraft failed to return. The airmen that took part in the operation numbered 1,726, and 532 did not return. Kane’s Ninety-eighth dispatched forty-seven aircraft of which eighteen were lost in action at Ploesti. Operation Tidal Wave also provided the most highly-decorated operation in American military history. Five Airmen earned the Medal of Honor, three posthumously, for their performance.
Col. John Riley Kane was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor by Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton in a ceremony on September 4, 1943, at the Gezireh Sporting Club in Cairo, Egypt, for his “conspicuous gallantry in this most hazardous action against the enemy, and by his intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Colonel Kane personally contributed vitally to the success of this daring mission.” He also received the Legion of Merit that day.
Operation Tidal Wave represented the high point in John Kane’s military career. In 1944 he was assigned to Gowan Field in Idaho, first as station commandant and then base commander. Kane did not receive another combat command or another promotion. For the rest of his career, he was given a variety of command and administrative posts in Nebraska, Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Libya, and Morocco. In May 1954 Kane retired from active duty. Saying he “was dropping out of the rat race,” Kane with his second wife moved to a farm in rural Logan County, Arkansas. In 1987 after being stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, he moved to Pennsylvania to be near his son.
Kane married Pansy Inabnett of Shreveport, Louisiana, on December 27, 1936. The couple had a son in 1941, John Franklin Kane II; the marriage ended in divorce. Kane met his second wife, a British nurse, in Morocco after the Ploesti raid. Phyllis Kane died in 1987.
A few months before his death, Kane commented on the Ploesti mission: “I still recall the smoke, fire, and B-24s going down, like it was yesterday. Even now, I get a lump in my throat when I think about what we went through.” On May 29, 1996, Col. John Riley “Killer” Kane died at the age of eighty-nine at the Veterans Administration Nursing Home in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on June 18, 1996. On February 2, 1998, Barksdale Air Force Base named its B-52 combat crew training school in his honor.