By Sam Jack
Saturday, Sept. 29, marked a century since Lieutenant A. Tom Kirk was killed in action during the closing days of World War I.
A Conway Springs High School graduate, Kirk was lauded as a war hero in the weeks following his death. Conway Springs’ American Legion post, chartered two years later, was named after him: A. Tom Kirk American Legion Post 265.
Current Wichita resident Tom Kirk knew his namesake as a part of his family heritage – a heritage that became more real 25 years ago, when uncle Bob Kirk passed on a bundle of artifacts from A. Tom Kirk’s military service, including A. Tom Kirk’s service weapon, letters home and other documents.
Though few members of the Kirk family served in the military after A. Tom Kirk’s valorous stint, Tom Kirk has worked to honor his great-uncle’s memory. He donated the papers and service weapon to the National WWI Museum in Kansas City, and he and his son, Andy, traveled to the Argonne Forest region of France, visiting the battlefield where A. Tom Kirk was felled by a German machine gun bullet.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 print edition of the Star-Argosy. To see more stories like this and to see them sooner, subscribe to the Star-Argosy. Call 316-540-0500 to receive next week’s edition at your home.
As a lieutenant in Company K, 139th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, A. Tom Kirk led young men that had had childhoods like his, in rural Kansas and Missouri.
“They were National Guard or reserve, primarily,” Tom Kirk said. “It seems like they kept their groups together during deployment; this group was from Kansas City, another was from McPherson.”
Lieutenant Kirk was deployed to Europe in April 1918, and killed in rural France six months later. Only 43 days elapsed between his death and the end of the war on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918.
That timeline made it difficult for his family to feel wholly at peace with his death, according to Tom Kirk. Was A. Tom Kirk’s sacrifice truly needed?
The doubts were compounded after the war ended, when more details about the management of the 35th Division started to come into public view. The major general in charge of the division was incompetent, according to Robert H. Ferrell, a history professor at Indiana University who wrote a book on the subject, and the training the troops received – training in techniques of modern warfare that were then brand new – was inadequate.
Kansas newspaper publisher Henry J. Allen served as Red Cross representative of the division; he witnessed the problems, and the carnage that resulted.
A month after becoming governor of Kansas in January 1919, Allen wrote a letter to the Rev. A.B. Kirk, A. Tom Kirk’s father. He asked A.B. Kirk to forward a letter from one of his son’s comrades, describing his son’s heroism under fire as well as the circumstances of his death.
Allen brought that letter, as well as other materials, before a Congressional committee that investigated what happened.
“If it were necessary to fight this battle without the help of the machinery these lads should have had, then the loss of his life was necessary,” Allen wrote, “but it ought not have been necessary for these boys to fight that way.”
That, at least in outline, is A. Tom Kirk’s place in the giant conflict that was World War I. The historical record also includes clues about who he was as a person.
He was a talented student, graduating from Conway Springs High School before going on to Wichita’s Fairmount College and then accepting a commission at West Point.
He was also a talented musician; after he was dismissed from West Point for medical reasons, he got a job with a Christian minister, leading choral singing as well as “cantatas, operettas, etc.”
After his death, chaplain Daniel Lane told his father that the soldiers loved to hear him sing.
“On the last Sunday before that on which he was killed, under the emptying clouds of rain and the darker clouds of the overhanging battle, he volunteered to sing for us at our impressive service. In the great temple of God’s out-of-doors, we worshiped God in deep reality,” Lane wrote.
Finally, Kirk was brave: It seems likely that he could have avoided further military service after he left West Point, but he rejoined the U.S. Army, went to officer training and was commissioned as a lieutenant. According to an article in The Legionnaire magazine, Kirk helped lead an exhausting and bloody advance into enemy territory that spanned Thursday, Sept. 26, through Sunday, Sept. 29, 1918, taking command of more and more soldiers as other officers were killed.
Those who gathered for a commemoration at Conway Springs Cemetery last Saturday, Sept. 29, remembered all that and, by extension, remembered the sacrifices of all soldiers who died in war, and of their families.
“I love his service, I love that legacy. I love his devotion to his God and his country,” said the Rev. Ron Rogers, First Baptist Church of Conway Springs. “We’re celebrating 100 years that have come and gone; not forgotten; always remembered. … Conway Springs can be proud today that one of their own was a hero in World War I, and that he’s not forgotten.”
Members of A. Tom Kirk American Legion Post 265 attended the commemoration, and American Legion Vice Commander Charles Eaton gave remarks. “We want to thank this family for the sacrifice and loss of this brave veteran who paid the ultimate price for his country,” he said.
The ceremony concluded with the playing of Taps. Tom and Andy Kirk folded a World War I-era American flag.