Col. Charles Clark “Sonny” Kegelman, for whom Kegelman Air Force Auxiliary Field is named, was not awarded a Medal of Honor and is not a member of the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“He was kind of really a badass,” said Stephanie Ritter, Vance Air Force Base historian. “I mean, he was pretty awesome.”
Kegelman, an El Reno native, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military decoration, for his heroics during a 1942 joint U.S.-British bombing mission over German-occupied Holland.
On July 4 of that year, Kegelman led a squadron of six American A-20 bombers, accompanied by six British Royal Air Force Bostons (the British version of the A-20), on the first such joint raid of the war. The target was De Kooy Airfield.
Upon reaching the airfield, Kegelman’s twin-engine A-20 was struck by flak, which shot away his right propeller, damaged his right wing and started a fire in his right engine. At the same time his aircraft released its bomb load.
Kegelman’s plane then lost altitude and struck the ground, but it bounced back up into the air.
As his A-20 became airborne again, according to a synopsis of his Distinguished Flying Cross citation, Kegelman flew it directly at the flak tower that had crippled his light bomber, continuously firing the cannons in the plane’s nose. He took out the crew in the flak tower, then turned his aircraft toward his home base at RAF Swanton Morley in Kent, England.
Flying low over the English Channel on his one remaining engine, Kegelman managed to fly his crippled aircraft back to Kent, where he made a wheels-up landing from which he and his crew were able to walk away.
Gen. Jimmy Doolittle ordered that Kegelman be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (his crew members were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross), which was first presented to him by Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz, commander of 8th Air Force, then again when he returned to the United States by supreme Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“He was the first one to receive the DSC in Europe, he was the first person in 8th Air Force to receive the DSC,” Ritter said.
Kegelman continued flying, leading aerial assaults against ports and Nazi airfields for the next nine months, until he was ordered to Tunisia to support the war in North Africa.
“That means he would have been chasing (German Gen. Erwin) Rommel over the desert,” said Ritter, “which is also pretty amazing.”
He returned home in 1943 and spent time as an instructor pilot before requesting a return to combat in 1944. He was then sent to the South Pacific to command a squadron of B-25s.
On March 9, 1945, during a routine bombing raid over the Japanese-held Philippine island of Mindanao, Kegelman’s wingman lost control of his aircraft, the two planes collided and crashed into the jungle, killing both crews. Kegelman was 29 at the time of his death. He was buried in El Reno and was posthumously inducted into the Oklahoma Military Academy Hall of Fame. He attended OMA and then the University of Oklahoma, where he studied to be a doctor.
The auxiliary air field controlled by Vance Air Force Base was formally named for Kegelman in 1949. At the time it was known as the Auxiliary Field at Great Salt Plains Lake.