Lieutenant Kenneth H. Underwood. Image courtesy of Kenneth H. Underwood II

The American Air Museum in Britain is more than a place to view remarkable aircraft and learn about the American experience of conflict; it is also a memorial to those heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice while flying from air bases in the UK. This Memorial Day, we’re sharing a touching story from one of our Founding Members, Ken Underwood, about his journey to connect with his father—an American airman who gave his life during World War II.

Kenneth H. Underwood II is one of the Founding Members of the American Air Museum in Britain. His connection to the Museum’s mission is personal and motivated in part by a desire to ensure that future generations remember the sacrifices made for our freedoms, including the one made by his father whom he never got a chance to know.

Ken’s father, Lieutenant Kenneth H. Underwood of the US Army Air Forces, flew P-38 Lightnings from bases in England during World War II, but tragically, his final flight ended in a fatal crash on May 18, 1944, near Bury St Edmunds. 

Ken was born two months after his father’s death. Kenneth Sr. was just 23 years old and looking forward to becoming a father. Alice, Ken’s mother, had heard rumors about her husband flying recklessly. In 1986—when Alice revealed her concerns about Ken’s late father on her dying bed—Ken made it his mission to find out what really happened. “I owed it to my mom . . . I felt a need to learn the truth,” he recalled.

Seemingly guided by the wings of fate, Ken would find the answers he’d been searching for mostly by chance and happenstance. “My dad must have been looking down too. There’s no other way to explain all the twists and turns that led me to the truth.”

Ken (right) and Harryson with Kenneth Sr.’s grave, Cambridge American Cemetery. Image courtesy of Kenneth H. Underwood II

When Ken attended a reunion of his father’s unit—the 38th Fighter Squadron of the 55th Fighter Group—Ken met his father’s crew chief, Donald Maloney. Maloney and others remembered Kenneth Sr. fondly and suggested a mechanical failure was likely the cause of the crash during low-level practice. It was reassuring for Ken, but even more firsthand knowledge of the past would find its way to his doorstep.

Years later, another twist of fate led Ken to more answers and more connections. Ken remembered, “I was at an airshow in California watching a P-38 fly by when I nudged an older gentleman next to me and said, ‘My dad flew one of those.’ He said, ‘So did I’ and introduced himself as Bert Shepard—my father’s wingman!”

Shepard connected Ken with another of his father’s friends from the 94th Bomb Group, and Ken used the association’s newsletter to ask if anyone remembered the crash of a P-38 on May 18, 1944. It was a longshot, but months later, a letter arrived from Dr. Brian Tyson, who remembered seeing a plane crash in the field near his childhood home in a small English village. Dr. Tyson’s older brother still lived near the crash site and had collected a rudder pedal from the wreckage nearly 50 years prior. The brothers offered Ken the pedal as a memento and a tangible connection to his father.

Ken jumped at the opportunity to hold a piece of his father’s aircraft, and he traveled to England to stand in the very farm field where his father’s Lightning had crash-landed. It was an emotional moment, and when Ken looked to the sky and asked, “Dad, are you here today?” Ken cried tears of relief because he finally had all the proof he needed to rest assured that his dad was in fact a hero who died in service to his country.

Ken’s son, Harryson, like his grandfather, also flies Lightnings, albeit the F-35 Lightning II. Harryson also wears the same wings that adorned his grandfather’s uniform. Lieutenant Kenneth H. Underwood is buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery in England, about 10 miles from the American Air Museum.

Ken understands that each of the nearly 30,000 American airmen who died while flying from British airfields left behind families who are part of a much bigger story—the story of two nations united through war, loss, love, and duty. As he did with his father, Ken’s mission and the Museum’s aim is to educate and safeguard the memories of those who took to the skies to defend liberty.

Ken said, “Younger generations need to know about the contributions that my father and so many others made to the cause of freedom. That’s why I support the Museum and will continue doing so until I meet my dad and get to ask him my few remaining unanswered questions.”

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Counting the Cost by Renato Niemis is a memorial sculpture made of 52 glass panels. Each engraved aircraft represents a plane missing in action on operations flown by American air forces from Britain during World War II.

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