Lt. Benjamin R. Kimlau. Courtesy of Eileen Margaret Dong, in memory of Benjamin Ralph Kimlau, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection

Concord-born Kimlau’s military heroism remembered during AAPI Heritage Month

By Christine M. Quirk —

On a rainy day in New York City’s Chinatown, Ben Xia walked through Kimlau Square to meet a friend for breakfast. He had been researching Asian Americans, unearthing their contributions to American history, and his work had brought him to the Big Apple. 

“My friend was a scholar, and she told me, ‘You know, there’s a famous World War II hero, Benjamin Kimlau, who was born in Concord,’” Xia recalled. 

“I said, ‘I live there!’ and then realized I’d just walked through his square.” 

Lt. Benjamin R. Kimlau. Courtesy of Eileen Margaret Dong, in memory of Benjamin Ralph Kimlau, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection

Benjamin Ralph Kimlau was born in Concord in 1918 and lived in the area until he was 14. He then moved to New York with his family, and studied at Pennsylvania Military College.

After graduation, he eventually served in the 530th Combat Crew Training Squadron, which was assigned to the 380th Bombardment Group of the Fifth Air Force. 

He was stationed at Fenton Airfield in Australia and flew 45 missions as a bomber pilot before he and his crew were killed in action in March 1944.

But, as Xia and others would learn, there was more to the story.

Xia’s research into Kimlau’s life led him to DEI Co-Chair Joe Palumbo, who showed him the World War II memorial in Monument Square, which lacks Kimlau’s name. 

The men’s quest to tell Kimlau’s story brought them to Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Love, the director of historical services for the Massachusetts National Guard and the curator of the National Guard Museum in Concord. 

“I was asked to research the life and World War II service of Lt. Kimlau, and to prepare a presentation, which I gladly agreed to do,” Love said. 

Getting to know Kimlau

At a lecture in the Goodwin Forum at the Concord Free Library during this Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Love spoke about Kimlau’s youth and military service. 

When Kimlau’s family moved to New York, his father became an undertaker. Kimlau was a good student, but he had a mischievous streak. 

“I was told by friends of the family that as a young man, Kimlau was known as a prankster,” Love said. 

“His father would have caskets on display on the streets of Chinatown. He would hide in the casket when he knew his friends would come, and then he’d open it and jump out at the right moment to achieve the greatest fright.”

Love also outlined Kimlau’s military service. 

“When we learn about World War II heroes, we see ‘Band of Brothers,’ ‘Saving Private Ryan’ — these are very intense war movies and TV shows with a certain kind of heroism,” Love said. “But I was reminded there are other kinds of heroism and other kinds of enemies and challenges in war.” 

Lt. Benjamin Ralph Kimlau, back row, far right, with his aircraft crew of the 530th Bombardment Squadron. Courtesy of Eileen Margaret Dong, in memory of Benjamin Ralph Kimlau, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection

Love said that during the 1944 New Guinea Campaign in the South Pacific, squadrons faced immense pressure to keep up the assaults on the Japanese troops while also trying to keep planes serviced, repaired, and ready. 

“It was sometimes an impossible job,” he said. 

“This led to crashes and mishaps… But the bomb squadron was under great pressure to deliver, and to me, that took an immense amount of courage — to do your best to get the aircraft off the ground and deliver that payload. It’s the same brand of courage that led to victory.”

Poor maintenance led to a fatal crash on March 5, 1944, during an assault on Los Negros, a Japanese base. 

The flight, Love said, was a “series of catastrophes.” Kimlau managed to fly the plane back to his base but died of his injuries hours later. 

Xia said Kimlau knew the risks of his assignment. 

“He didn’t even get married,” Xia said. “He told his girlfriend he couldn’t marry her until the war ended because his job was too dangerous, and then he didn’t come back.” 

A lasting remembrance

Kimlau and his crew were interred in the South Pacific, but in 1968, his remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery. He posthumously received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, and his bombardment group earned two presidential citations for outstanding performance and gallantry in battle. 

In 1962, the New York City American Legion 1291 was named for him. The Benjamin Ralph Kimlau Memorial Gate was built in Kimlau Square — the square Xia walked through last year. And in 2021, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated that memorial a landmark. 

Xia, who’s lived in Concord since 2018, wants Chinese-Americans to be proud of their identity and hopes Kimlau’s story can help achieve that. He felt drawn to Kimlau, he said, due to their shared heritage and American first names. 

“It moved me,” he said. “It’s a connection between Concord and me.”