By Kaley E. Brown
As part of my internship at the La Crosse County Historical Society I do research on artifacts in the collection. In our current survey of uniforms, we processed a box of military hats with absolutely no donation records. These items had possibly been saved many years previously for costuming purposes, put with collections, and forgotten.
Among them I found an undocumented West Point Military Academy dress hat. This classic 20th century hat is grey wool, with a black visor and a metal badge on the front with the West Point Academy coat of arms. The hat contained a card with the name “David Dearman” written in a child’s hand writing and the name “Kirkegaard M” typed on the other side. I found Martin L Kirkegaard, class of 1958, on the West Point Alumni’s website and then wrote to him asking for information on how we acquired his hat. A week later I received a phone call from Washington State and began learning all about the interesting life and career of Martin Kirkegaard.
Mr. Kirkegaard’s father came to the U.S. when he was only 17 and they are direct descendants of the famous Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Mr. Kirkegaard graduated from West Point in 1958 and then went to infantry basic training and jump school before also going through flight school. He was then sent to Berlin for ground duty for a few months as part of the B Company 1st Battalion 19th Infantry. His company helped support the Berlin Brigade. He watched the Berlin wall be built and knew Checkpoint Charlie before it was called Checkpoint Charlie. Part of his duties included taking a convoy through East Germany a few nights a week and reporting on what he saw on the other side. He was stationed in Olsberg, Germany for the next few years. Afterwards, he came back to the U.S. and began flying Mohawk Aircrafts. He was then sent on his first tour in Vietnam as part of the 131st Surveillance Airplane Company. His company was one of the first to be sent over and they observed the construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was a dangerous job and Mr. Kirkegaard was the only pilot out of seven to return home. After two more tours in Vietnam, he was forced to retire in 1980 as a Lieutenant Colonel due reductions in the military during President Carter’s tenure.
After retirement, Mr. Kirkegaard held a variety of jobs, including 17 years with Boeing training mechanics how to service the 757 and 767 commercial airliners. He is now fully retired and is excited to travel back to West Point for his 60th reunion in two years.
But how did the hat end up in La Crosse if its owner resides in Washington? It turns out that West Point has a tradition of graduates throwing their hats in the air at the end of their graduation ceremony to symbolize the end of training and their new rank as second lieutenants. The children of the military personnel at the school then collect the hats and play with them. So David Dearman must have been the child who was lucky enough to get the hat of Mr. Martin Kirkegaard and then bring it to La Crosse years later. Even if we had found a deed of gift for this donation it would not have included the fascinating history of the man who wore it. This just goes to show that by losing one thing, you may just find more than you expected.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.