Staff Sergeant Harold D. Kirk (1913–1944)

Harold D. Kirk as a technician 4th grade in a 1942 portrait (Courtesy of the Kirk family)
ResidencesCivilian Occupation
Born in Pennsylvania, moved to Delaware by age 5Florist
BranchService Number
U.S. Army32071544
TheaterUnit
MediterraneanCompany “A,” 191st Tank Battalion
AwardsCampaigns/Battles
Purple HeartItaly including Salerno landings, Volturno River, and Anzio

Early Life & Family

Harold D. Kirk was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on September 18, 1913. He was the son of John Little Kirk (a farmer at the time, 1875–1941) and Emma Disert Kirk (1876–1965). Nicknamed Mike, Harold had three older brothers, an older sister, and a younger sister. The Kirk family moved to Delaware after February 24, 1915—when the family’s youngest child, Bertha, was born in Chambersburg—and prior to September 12, 1918, when Kirk’s father registered for the draft. The family briefly lived on a farm near New Castle, where they were recorded on the census on January 2, 1920.

By April 24, 1930, when the Kirks were recorded on the next census, the family had moved to Foxden Farm (on what is now known as Fox Den Road, north of downtown Newark, Delaware). At the time, Kirk was working as farmhand. Census records indicate that he completed eighth grade, while his enlistment data stated that he finished one year of high school.

Around 1934, the family opened a new business, Kirk’s Flowers, in the Lumbrook area of Newark off Capitol Trail. By 1941, the Kirks had three greenhouses in operation growing plants for the business. Kirk’s Flowers, though no longer owned by the Kirk family, is still in operation today. The next census recorded that as of April 22, 1940, Kirk was living in White Clay Creek Hundred (likely his prewar address of 316 Capitol Trail) and working as a florist with his father and older brother, James. When he registered for the draft on October 16, 1940, Kirk was described as standing five feet, five inches tall and weighing 165 lbs., with brown hair and gray eyes. He was Protestant according to his military paperwork and dog tags.

Two of Kirk’s siblings served in the military during World War II. His sister, Bertha May Kirk (later Boronski, 1915–2004), joined the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps in November 1941. She retired in 1965 at the grade of lieutenant commander. His brother, John Howard Kirk (1906–2000), served in the U.S. Army from 1943–1945.


Stateside Service & Marriage

Harold Kirk (left), likely during his stateside service (Courtesy of the Kirk family)

Kirk was drafted before the attack on Pearl Harbor and inducted into the U.S. Army in Camden, New Jersey, on April 14, 1941. According to the Individual Military Service Record filled out by his wife for the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, Private Kirk arrived at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland on April 28, 1941. Following basic training, he joined Company “A,” 191st Tank Battalion.

The 191st Tank Battalion was one of the so-called separate tank battalions, which could be attached by higher headquarters to other units as needed. The separate tank battalions were distinguished from tank battalions that were assigned to armored divisions. The battalion history book, 191 Tank Bn.,stated that the unit was originally composed of federalized “National Guard tank companies from New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, [and] Connecticut” which were first stationed together at Fort George G. Meade beginning in February 1941.

In August and September 1941, Kirk participated in the Louisiana Maneuvers, one of several large-scale exercises held that year to hone the rapidly expanding U.S. Army. That fall, the battalion also participated in maneuvers in South Carolina.

John L. Kirk died on November 12, 1941. It is unclear if Kirk was able to return to Newark on furlough for his father’s funeral. His battalion didn’t get back to Fort Meade until December 5, two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Later that month, Kirk married Eleanor Rebecca Young (1917–1977), a nurse at Wilmington General Hospital, at the Church of the Brethren in Richardson Park (a neighborhood outside Wilmington, Delaware) on the evening of December 27, 1941.

Harold and Eleanor Kirk in front of one of the family greenhouses (Courtesy of the Kirk family)

According to his wife’s statement, Kirk was promoted to sergeant in January 1942. (Photographs indicate that he was a technician 4th grade at some point, as discussed in the Notes section below.) In the summer of 1942, the 191st Tank Battalion traveled west to Camp Young, California, where they participated in maneuvers at the Desert Training Center. While in California, the 191st transitioned from the M3 medium tank to the M4 medium tank (popularly known as the Sherman).

That winter, the unit headed back east, this time to Fort Benning, Georgia. After additional training, the unit headed north to Fort Dix, New Jersey, in February 1943. The unit shipped out from the New York Port of Embarkation on February 28, 1943, aboard the British troopship R.M.S. Andes.

Detail of Company “A,” 191st Tank Battalion unit photograph, with Kirk standing in the second row from the front at far right. Click here for full image. (Courtesy of the Kirk family)

Service in North Africa & Combat in Italy

Harold D. Kirk enjoying one of his cigars, presumably in Italy (Courtesy of the Kirk family)

The 191st Tank Battalion arrived in Casablanca, Morocco, on March 9, 1943. Two days later, Sergeant Kirk wrote his mother that he had arrived in North Africa. Unable to discuss much about the war due to censorship, his letters home mainly discussed family and the flower business. On April 25, 1943, he wrote his mother: “Today is Easter and I imagine you are very tired after the rush[,] you said that the tulips were early so it must have been hard getting enough plants and flowers to go around”.

Extant correspondence indicates that Sergeant Kirk frequently sent some of his pay to his mother. Although he frequently expressed his longing for home, the only thing he asked her to send from home were cigars, something hard to come by in the war zone.

The 191st Tank Battalion did not participate in the Tunisian or Sicily campaigns, but U.S. Army planners selected the unit for the next scheduled amphibious operation: the invasion of mainland Italy. The battalion staged in Bizerte, Tunisia, during preparations for the operation. On September 3, 1943, elements of the 191st Tank Battalion (including Sergeant Kirk’s Company “A”) loaded their vehicles aboard a group of six L.C.T.s (Landing Craft, Tank). On September 9, 1943, they landed under heavy German fire at Paestrum, Italy.

191st Tank Battalion M4 tanks unloading from an L.S.T. during the invasion of Italy on September 9, 1943. These tanks are from another company; Sergeant Kirk’s traveled aboard smaller L.C.T.s (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo, National Archives via NavSource)

The battalion supported the 45th Infantry Division and later the 34th Infantry Division during the drive north in the fall of 1943. Among other battles, the battalion participated in combat at the infamous Volturno River.

A January 3, 1944, letter of commendation to Sergeant Kirk from the 191st Tank Battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Percy H. Perkins, Jr., stated in part:

1.  During the last three months, you have been a tank commander in a combat company and have done an outstanding job.  Company “A” has been materially aided in successfully accomplishing its missions because of your efficiency, quick thinking and ability.

2.  In both North Africa and back in the States, you showed willingness to study and learn.  It is because of this that you have attained the standard described above.

3. I therefore wish to congratulate you on the fine work you have done.  You can be proud of it.


M4 medium tanks arriving at the Anzio beachhead on April 27, 1944 (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-189668, National Archives via Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Anzio Beachhead

Sergeant Kirk was awarded the Good Conduct Medal on January 25, 1944. That same month, his battalion was attached to the 1st Armored Division in preparation for another amphibious operation, this time at Anzio. The battalion arrived on January 31, 1944, nine days after the landings began. Shortly after arriving, the 191st was assigned to support the 3rd Infantry Division, though it supported the 45th Infantry Division later in the campaign.

Sergeant Kirk’s battalion helped stop a German counterattack on February 16, 1944. In his book, The Infantry’s Armor: The U.S. Army’s Separate Tank Battalions in World War II, Harry Yeide wrote that “the 191st Tank Battalion counted fifteen panzers positively destroyed at the cost of seven Shermans.”

On February 23, 1944, Sergeant Kirk wrote his mother (edited for clarity, see Notes section below for original text):

I am now on the Anzio beachhead, have been for some time. My tank has knocked out two German tanks. […] This is really a hot place. I have lost quite a bit of weight but think things will clear up here soon.

Months of stalemate followed the German counterattack. 191 Tank Bn. described Anzio as follows:

Fighting on the line was violent and costly.  Heroic deeds became common place.  There were no “Rear Areas.”  The beachhead–narrow and crowded–gave a target to every shell, and Kraut artillery raked it day and night.  Jerry was dugin [sic] too and looked down our throat from the hillsides.  “Popcorn Pete” came over like clockwork, with his spitting [anti]personnel bombs[.]

The famous reporter Ernie Pyle visiting with a 191st Tank Battalion crew at the Anzio beachhead (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-191704, National Archives via Naval History and Heritage Command)

Correspondence indicates that Kirk was promoted to staff sergeant while serving at the Anzio beachhead, sometime between April 20–23, 1944. Based on the table of organization for a U.S. Army tank company, Staff Sergeant Kirk must have served as a platoon sergeant after his promotion.

On May 21, 1944, Kirk wrote letters home to his wife and mother. The one to his mother (edited for clarity) stated:

I guess the busy season is about over at the greenhouse and I bet you are glad. Don’t work too hard as it isn’t worth it. […] Everything here is about the same. I would love to be back in good old Del. with spring here. I bet the maple trees [in the] back of the house look good now. I still have some of the cigars you sent me. They do help some. Hope so much to see you soon.


Breakout & Aftermath

The long-awaited breakout from Anzio, beginning on May 23, 1944, proved extremely costly to the 191st Tank Battalion. Harry Yeide wrote that “the outfit suffered the worst losses of all the separate [tank] battalions that participated in the breakout.” Staff Sergeant Kirk’s Company “A,” (along with the light tanks of Company “D,” as well as the 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion) supported the advance of the elite American-Canadian 1st Special Service Force.

During the offensive, the 191st suffered significant losses from enemy tanks, artillery, and mines. According to the unit history:

The tanks supported by the doughfeet [infantrymen] rumbled through one enemy position after another from Anzio until they crossed Highway 7.  It was going very nicely for tank number 14 of Able Company until motor trouble forced Staff Sergeant Kirk the tank commander and Technician fourth grade Ingebretson, driver, to retrace their path over highway 7.  They drove straight into the teeth of Kraut tanks coming down the highway…Sheets of flame shot from their tank.  Sergeant Kirk, the loader, and gunner lay dead on the floor of the turret…..By nightfall every tank in the 3rd platoon had been destroyed, and only nine of the platoon escaped unscratched from the ring of steel[.]    

Map illustrating the breakout from Anzio with the 1st Special Service Force on the Allied right. Though not labeled, Highway 7 was the north-south road passing through Cisterna and Velletri (Fifth Army History Part V :The Drive to Rome)
S-3 journal entry reporting the death of Staff Sergeant Kirk (National Archives)

Staff Sergeant Kirk was almost certainly killed on May 23, 1944, the first day of the breakout. An entry in the battalion S-3 journal at 1810 hours that day stated that “Lt NANGLE reported to CP [command post] (rear) that Co A had five tanks knocked out[.]” Another entry at 2120 hours stated: “Lt NANGLE reported to Capt HAYNES at rear CP [command post] that S/Sgt Kirk, Pfc Bertram of ‘A’ Co, were killed.” Despite that, officially, per the Office of the Adjutant General, Staff Sergeant Kirk’s death occurred the following day, May 24, 1944.

Staff Sergeant Kirk was initially buried in the U.S. military cemetery at Nettuno on June 8, 1944. After the war, he was reburied at the permanent cemetery at the same location, today known as the Sicily–Rome American Cemetery (Plot E, Row 6, Grave 49). He is also honored on Newark’s World War II memorial, at Veterans Memorial Park in New Castle, Delaware, and on a cenotaph at Ebenezer United Methodist Church Cemetery in Newark (where his parents are buried).

Staff Sergeant Kirk’s decorations include the American Defense Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Purple Heart.

The year after Staff Sergeant Kirk’s death, his widow Eleanor went on active duty with the Army Nurse Corps at Tilton General Hospital at Fort Dix, New Jersey. She served in the U.S. Army from March 1, 1945, until July 16, 1946. By February 1948, she had remarried to a career U.S. Army officer, Paul Gross Tobin (1920–2005), with whom she raised four children.

Staff Sergeant Harold D. Kirk’s Purple Heart (Courtesy of the Kirk family)

The back of Staff Sergeant Kirk’s Purple Heart (Courtesy of the Kirk family)

Staff Sergeant Harold D. Kirk Purple Heart certificate (Courtesy of the Kirk family)

Documents

Click to any document to view a larger copy. All are courtesy of the Kirk family.


Notes

Mother’s Maiden Name

Kirk’s mother’s maiden name was Emma Rebecca Disert, although some sources listed incorrect variant spellings including Disirt and Dizert.

Foxden Farm

The 1930 census didn’t provide any address for the farm, though it indicated that it was in Mill Creek Hundred along the Paper Mill Road corridor north of Milford Crossroads (which refers to where Paper Mill Road, Possum Park Road, and Thompson Station Road come together). When I queried a Newark-area Facebook group, a woman told me that the Kirks lived on Fox Den Road. A member of the Kirk family confirmed that was correct and indeed lived on the Foxden Farm.

Grade

Kirk’s widow wrote that he was promoted to sergeant in either January or February 1942. One photo from 1942 and one from January 1943 indicate his grade was actually technician 4th grade when they were taken. Both technician 4th grade and sergeant were classified as 4th grade in the enlisted structure of the era. At the time, 1st grade (master sergeant and 1st sergeant) was the highest enlisted grade while 7th grade (private) was the lowest. Tech 4s were usually referred to as sergeant.

It appears that his grade did change to sergeant at some point since the letter of commendation and General Order No. 2 (announcing that he was awarded the Good Conduct Medal) dated January 25, 1944, referred to him as sergeant. Furthermore, the table of organization indicates that tank commanders were sergeants rather than tech 4s. For simplicity, this article refers to him as sergeant during his entire period at 4th grade.

Although Kirk’s widow wrote that he was promoted to staff sergeant on May 1, 1944, it appears that his promotion came through slightly earlier. In an April 20, 1944, V-mail he gave his grade as sergeant but as staff sergeant on an April 23 V-mail.

Original Text of Sergeant Kirk’s February 23, 1944, V-mail

I am now on the Anzio beachead. have been for some time my tank has nocked out too German tanks since we have been hear with quite a bit of other stuff This is really a hot place I have lost quite a bit of wait but think things will clear up hear soon

Original Text of Staff Sergeant Kirk’s May 21, 1944, V-mail

Dear Mother

I gess the busy season is about over at the greenhouse and I bet you are glade don’t work too hard as it isn’t worth it […] every thing hear is about the same I would love to be back in good old Del. with spring hear I bet the maple trees back of the house look good now I still have some of the cigars you sent me they do help some hope so much to see you soon.

Love

Mike

Date of Death

Discrepancies in dates of death are unfortunately rather common for World War II servicemen who died in the line of duty, since accurate recordkeeping was difficult under combat conditions. The battalion S-3 journal clearly stated that Staff Sergeant Kirk was killed on the first day of the breakout, May 23, 1944. Such journals are generally reliable since they were compiled soon after events took place, within the limitations of what the writer knew and had the opportunity to record. For that reason, I consider the May 23 date of death most likely to be accurate. In theory, an error could have occurred if the journal was later retyped from notes made at the time.

The Adjutant General’s Office report of death in Staff Sergeant Kirk’s Individual Deceased Personnel File (I.D.P.F.) listed his date of death as May 24, 1944, presumably based on information submitted from his unit. Though this date was most likely in error, it effectively became his official date of death, one listed on his headstone.

Status

Oddly enough, the official casualty list compiled after the war stated that Staff Sergeant Kirk died of wounds (after reaching medical treatment) rather than being killed outright, contrary to the description of his death in the unit history and the burial report in his I.D.P.F. His status should have been listed as killed in action.


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to the Kirk family for supplying many of the photos and documents which accompany this article.


Bibliography

“25 Nurses Leave Today to Enter Military Service.” Wilmington Morning News, March 1, 1945. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/73109649/eleanor-kirk-anc/, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/73109736/eleanor-kirk-anc-2/

191 Tank Bn. 667th Engineer Topographic Company, c. 1945. 191st Tank Battalion website. https://191sttankbattalion.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/191-tank-bn.pdf

Delaware Marriages. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Hall of Records, Dover, Delaware. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61368/images/TH-267-12375-88719-90

Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531890_00700

Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295772-00179

“General Order No. 2.” Headquarters 191st Tank Battalion, January 25, 1944. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=2033124366929624&set=pcb.229787871089834

Harold D. Kirk Individual Deceased Personnel File. Courtesy of U.S. Army Human Resources Command.

Headstone Inscription and Interment Records for U.S. Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil, 1942–1949. Record Group 117, Records of the American Battle Monuments Commission, 1918–ca. 1995. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/9170/images/42861_1521003239_0890-00550

“Historical Record of the 191st Tank Battalion (M) August 15, 1943 – September 30, 1943.” World War II Operations Reports, 1940–48. Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. 191st Tank Battalion website. https://191sttankbattalion.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/1943-august-15-september-30-191st-historical-record.pdf

“John H. Kirk.” The News Journal, August 13, 2000. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/73108650/john-h-kirk-obituary/

“John L Kirk.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/218397124/john-l-kirk

“Kirk-Boronski.” Evening Journal, June 7, 1975. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/73032884/bertha-kirk-wedding/

Kirk, Eleanor R. Harold D. Kirk Individual Military Service Record, February 14, 1945. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/19538

Kirk, Harold D. Unpublished correspondence 1941–1944. Courtesy of the Kirk family.

“Kirk’s Flowers Has Fine Record.” The Newark Post, May 8, 1941. https://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/18769/np_032_16.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

“Mrs. John L. Kirk.” Wilmington Morning News, October 15, 1965. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/73033017/emma-kirk-obituary/

Perkins, Percy H., Jr. Letter of commendation to Sergeant Harold D. Kirk, January 3, 1944. https://www.fold3.com/image/704856049

Register of Retired Commissioned and Warrant Officers, Regular and Reserve, of the United States Navy, 30 September 1972. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2345/images/40014_1821100517_0610-00316

Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-00546-00332

Stanton, Shelby L. World War II Order of Battle: An Encyclopedic Reference to U.S. Army Ground Forces from Battalion through Division 1939–1946. Revised ed. Stackpole Books, 2006.

“Tobin, Eleanor Young.” The Courier-Journal & Times, September 11, 1977. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/73109953/eleanor-tobin-obituary/

U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936–2007. https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/48134493:60901

Waltz, Floyd R., Jr. “S-3 Journal 191st Tank Battal. From 0001 23 May 1944 To 2400 23 May 1944.” World War II Operations Reports, 1940–48. Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

Watson, Ernest C. “S-3 Journal, 191st Tank Bn (M).” August 15, 1943 – September 30, 1943. World War II Operations Reports, 1940–48. Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. 191st Tank Battalion website. https://191sttankbattalion.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/1943-august-15-september-30-191st-s-3-journal.pdf

World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6482/images/005207029_04688

World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland.https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=all&tf=F&q=32071544&bc=&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=2740666

WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri.https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_13_00005-00780

Yeide, Harry. The Infantry’s Armor: The U.S. Army’s Separate Tank Battalions in World War II. Stackpole Books, 2010.


Last updated on December 23, 2022

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