As part of my internship at the La Crosse County Historical Society, I conduct research about artifacts in the collection. In our current survey of uniforms, we processed a box of military hats with absolutely no donation records. These items possibly had been saved many years ago for costuming purposes, put with collections and forgotten.
In the collection I found an undocumented West Point Military Academy dress hat. This classic 20th century hat is gray 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 handwriting, and the name Kirkegaard M typed on the other side.
After finding Martin L. Kirkegaard, class of 1958, on the West Point Alumni’s website, I wrote to him asking for information about how we acquired his hat. A week later, I received a phone call from Washington state and began learning all about this man’s interesting life and career.
Kirkegaard’s father came to the United States when he was 17, and they are direct descendants of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kirkegaard graduated from West Point in 1958 and went to basic training and jump school, then 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 building of the Berlin Wall, and he knew Checkpoint Charlie before it was called Checkpoint Charlie. 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. He then returned to the United States and began flying Mohawk Aircrafts. His first tour of duty in Vietnam was 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 Kirkegaard was the only pilot out of seven to return home. After two more tours in Vietnam, he retired in 1980 as a lieutenant colonel due reductions to the military.
After retirement, Kirkegaard held a variety of jobs, including 17 years with Boeing, training mechanics to service the 757 and 767 commercial airliners. He is now fully retired and 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 the 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 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.