PRINCETON — Fighter pilot 1st Lt. Kenneth Blum's name is engraved on a World War II memorial on the lawn of the Gibson County Courthouse. His remains rest at Walnut Hill Cemetery near Fort Branch.
But first, he was given a 1945 Christian burial in a German cemetery by the townspeople of Bad Bodendorf, Germany, who discovered the site of his crashed P-38 Lightning.
And 73 years later, German volunteer historians reached out to Gibson County Veterans Service Officer George Pickerskill on Sept. 3 for help in finding Blum's family to return artifacts of his service from the crash site.
His niece Teresa Foster, library director for South Gibson School Corporation, notes that Blum was one of the first Gibson Countians to volunteer for service in World War II.
One of Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph Blum's nine children, the 1937 Fort Branch High School graduate was already working as an assistant postmaster in Fort Branch when he volunteered for service in the U.S. Army in 1941, according to archived editions of The Princeton Clarion.
He earned his silver wings in the Army Air Corps, according to a 1943 edition of The Clarion, beginning two years' service as a flight instructor in Marianna, Florida. It was August, 1944, that he began flying combat missions with the 430th Fighter Squadron over Germany.
Blum was flying reconnaissance Jan. 23, 1945, in the Remagen region when he attacked a German military train, and as he was circling around for a second pass, his plane was shot down by an anti-aircraft gun on the train. The plane exploded on impact. Pickersgill said the force of the crash threw Blum into a tree.
Four days later, German farmer Wilhelm Kramer discovered the crash site. Kramer and townspeople provided a Christian burial for Blum at a cemetery at Heimersheim, near Bad Bodendorf.
Back home in Fort Branch, the former Eagle Scout was given a memorial Court of Honor ceremony, according to a November 1946 edition of The Clarion.
Blum's family was able to travel to Germany in 1947 and make arrangements for his remains to be returned to the U.S., and a July 1948 edition of The Indianapolis Star confirms that Blum's remains were among the bodies of 112 Indiana servicemen returned to the U.S. after the war.
Foster remembers her mother talking about her uncles Kenny, Homer and Owen. Homer Blum was killed when his Navy ship sank, and Owen was also a flight instructor, but he was not permitted to leave U.S. soil after his two brothers died in service, she remembers.
While in service, the three Blum boys sent money home to their parents to help buy a piano for their sisters. Foster has the piano today, and she marvels at how devoted they were to their sisters, to assure they had a piano.
All those memories resurfaced last month when Pickersgill received an email from Christoph Reuter, asking him for help in finding the family of 1st Lt. Kenneth V. Blum.
Reuter and his friends volunteer their time and research as part of Luftkrieghistoriker Ahr, which means Ahr Valley Aerial War Historians.
"We are a small group looking for pilots of all nations in our free time," Reuter wrote earlier this week, explaining the effort.
Reuter and his friends review crash reports from the U.S. Air Force and German Air Force. "We evaluate these, and we drive to the alleged crash site and start searching," he said.
The group looks mainly in the area of Bonn, Germany (former capital of West Germany), and Ahweiler and the Ahrtal.
It's a very small group. "We are up to eight people," he said. "We’ve been doing it all for years. The group has slowly formed. We spent a lot of time. Oh yes, a lot of time."
"It is important for us to give the pilots a worthy grave," he wrote.
Reuter reached out to Pickersgill, hoping to be able to find information about Blum's family. It took Pickersgill only two phone calls and about 20 minutes to learn that Foster, who just happens to attend Bethel Memorial Church with Pickersgill, is Blum's niece.
Pickersgill first reached out to a friend, Betty Adams, who knew Blum's sisters. Foster's aunt Velma Allen, Blum's youngest sister, is the closest living next of kin.
Foster said her siblings, Mike and Mark Hillyard, Connie Moore and Debbie McConnell, are also thrilled with the discovery.
Pickersgill made arrangements for Reuter to have the artifacts from the crash site returned to the family. The box arrived in October, and Foster remembers her amazement to be reconnected with history from more than 70 years ago.
Her husband Matt said Reuter's group's devotion to the work was evident, when they offered to pay the postage to have the artifacts returned and he refused any payment.
Foster had the opportunity to meet and talk with Reuter via Facebook. She said she's grateful for such a service performed for her uncle, and she wants to keep the connection she has made with Reuter and the people who honored her uncle. "At some point, when I retire, I want to go there," she said.
When she opened the box containing artifacts such as a lighter, parachute buckles, portions of her uncle's sunglasses, snaps and zippers from his uniform and flight jacket, real history came to life. "This man died for his country. That's what our freedom is. Men like him going there...He was just a country boy, but he flew in Germany. He died in an airplane. And someone cared enough to dig for these things and return them to us.
"It's just an amazing thing, this is history, more than 70 years ago. I don't really have the words to explain it. The feeling was so immense, to realize that he went to fight and die for us.
"I'm so proud of him and my family," she said of Blum and his brothers. "They were fine young men. Patriots."