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Wings' Kilrea won medal for bravery

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Following his NHL playing career, Hec Kilrea became a naturalized American citizen and joined the U.S. Army. Upon his discharge from the military, Kilrea went to work for Ford Motor Company in metro Detroit. (Detroit Red Wings Archives)

More than 300 NHL players put their pro careers on the backburner to join the American or Canadian armed forces during World War II. And 36 of those men made the ultimate sacrifice, including former Red Wings goalie prospect Joe Turner, who died while fighting valiantly in a German forest.

On this Veterans Day, we remember and give thanks to all servicemen and women who have served and are currently serving our two countries, and pray for those who have paid with their lives so that others may live free.

In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, many pro athletes enlisted in the American and Canadian Armed Forces. Many Red Wings also put their careers on hold to sign up to fight against tyrannical regimes in Germany and Japan.

Red Wings players joined three different military branches:

Royal Canadian Air Force: Sid Abel, Ed Bush, Jim Conacher, Les Douglas, Art Herchenratter, Doug McCaig, Pat McCreavy, Johnny Mowers, Jack Stewart, Harry Watson. Canadian Armed Forces: Murray Armstrong, Adam Brown, Connie Brown, Gerry Brown, Red Doran, Pat Egan, Joe Fisher, Gus Giesebrecht, John Holota, Red Morrison, Cliff Simpson, Eddie Wares. United States Army: Dick Behling, Hec Kilrea and Joe Turner.

“Hurricane Hec” Kilrea was one of the best, and fastest, players of his era. Born in Blackburn, Ontario, he finished among the league’s top 10 scorers twice and won two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in 1936 and 1937. But some two years after he played his last game in a Wings’ sweater, Kilrea became a naturalized American citizen and joined the U.S. Army.

On Nov. 14, 1945, Kilrea stepped off a train at Ottawa’s Union Station to a thunderous ovation, according to a story in the Ottawa Journal. Wearing the Distinguished Service Cross on his tunic, as well as the Purple Heart and French Croix de Guerre on his uniform, Kilrea didn’t talk much about his military experience.

Asked about the wounds he received in battle, Kilrea was quoted in The Journal as saying, “The wounds were one of those things, but I’m fine now. I’m in great shape and anxious to see all my old sport buddies.”

Below is a Canadian Press story, along with the U.S. Army’s official battle report from Dec. 1944 when Kilrea’s heroic actions saves the lives of several U.S. troops:

DETROIT (May 11, 1945) – One American soldier stood between a monstrous enemy tank and its objective in a German village, but the tank didn’t get through. The following day, the same G.I. knocked out another tank with a bazooka hit. Both times his personal heroism saved his company from peril.

For his heroism, Staff Sgt. Hector Kilrea, former Detroit Red Wings player, has been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second highest army battle award. Word arrived yesterday from the public relations office of the 7th Army. Kilrea is a member of Company K of the 143rd Infantry Regiment.

At 35, Kilrea is a veteran of professional hockey and also of the European war. He was in hockey nearly 29 years, seven with Detroit, and scored the winning goal in the Red Wings Stanley Cup semifinal triumph over the Montreal Canadiens in 1937.

As a G.I., Kilrea saw action on the Anzio beachhead, helped to liberate Rome and drove with his buddies into central Italy. With the 36th “Texas” Division, Kilrea drove into France from the south and thence into Germany. He also wears the Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and three battle stars.

Last December 12 in the outskirts of the German village of Bennwihr, Kilrea engaged in the action in which he drove off the tank. Here is the official army version:

“Staff Sgt. Kilrea spotted an enemy Mark VI tank, 100 yards away, advancing slowly down the street supported by foot troops heavily armed with machine guns, rifles and machine pistols. Kilrea immediately grabbed an M-1 rifle and fired upon the advancing troops from an opening between the wall and the house.

“His fire caused the enemy foot troops to take cover in positions along the road and in the doorways of houses. The tank came to a halt eight yards from Kilrea. Despite the personal danger involved, he took a bazooka and, after loading it, ran out alone into the open street.

“Standing up, in full view of the enemy, he fired his weapon, although the small arms protection given the tank made it extremely dangerous. Enemy small arms fire was being directed on him and down the road.

“His first round hit the tank. He then ran into the yard, loaded his weapon and again went into the street. Hitting the tank again, he forced it to withdraw behind a nearby building. He repeated the loading procedure a third time and, again exposing himself to point-blank fire, held his weapon at a slight angle and fired over the corner of the building.

“Although enemy fire still was on him, he repeated this a fourth time, firing over the building corner. He returned to the yard to reload four more times. On the eighth time, his bazooka was put out of commission by a rifle bullet. However, his action forced the tank and troops to withdraw, thereby eliminating a serious threat to the entire company.”

The following day Kilrea, borrowing a bazooka, crawled within 50 feet of the enemy tank. This is what happened:

“Although he had no position from enemy observation, Kilrea from a kneeling position fired three well-aimed rounds at the tank, hitting it each time to knock it out. Kilrea’s calm and deliberate action not only saved the company from serious threat, but inspired those who witnessed his actions.”

Upon return from battlefield, Kilrea went to work for Ford Motor Company in Detroit. He died in 1969 at the age of 62.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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