By the Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
A native of Highland Park, Ill., Kilmer was born Aug. 15, 1930, just the beginning of a slew of August dates that would define Kilmer’s life.
By the time Kilmer was in high school, he was living in San Antonio, Texas. The day after turning 17 on Aug. 16, 1947, Kilmer dropped out of high school to join the service at the Navy Recruiting Station in Houston. The Apprentice Seaman, who went by the nickname of Jackie, entered the Hospital Corps School in San Diego, Calif., graduating in 1948 as a Hospital Apprentice. By Sept. 1, 1950, he had been promoted to Hospitalman.
When the Korean War began, Kilmer was stationed on USS Repose nearing the end of his four-year enlistment. Hoping to put his medical expertise to use in the war, he re-enlisted in the Navy in Aug. 1951.
In his picture, he is wearing a dark uniform and a white “dixie cup” cover. His face shows the beginnings of a mustache, grown perhaps to appear older. He stares straight and unsmiling into the camera with just a glint of a challenge in his brown eyes, which might explain why he dropped out of school to join the Navy and then a few years later, after a dispute with a superior officer, asked for a transfer to the Fleet Marine Force.
We will never know the cause of that dispute. But we certainly know its outcome.
Kilmer completed the Field Medical School at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and was transferred to the Third Battalion of the Seventh Marines, deploying with that unit to Korea.
On Aug. 12, 1952, Kilmer’s unit was pinned down under heavy mortar fire while dug into defensive positions well ahead of the main line of resistance. As stated at the Marine Corps History Division website, Kilmer “moved from position to position in the defense works through artillery, mortar, and sniper fire, administered aid to the wounded, and oversaw their evacuation. He was wounded by shrapnel from an exploding mortar round while en route to aid another wounded soldier, but continued on. Kilmer slowly inched his way to the Marine, but once he began to treat the soldier’s wounds, another heavy barrage of mortar fire began. The two men were unprotected from the explosions, and Kilmer unhesitatingly shielded the wounded man from shrapnel with his own body. Kilmer was mortally wounded during the shelling, but thanks to his heroic self-sacrifice, the wounded man lived.”
Kilmer died the following day, Aug. 13, just two days shy of his 22nd birthday. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. According to the citation: Hospitalman John E. Kilmer, “by his great personal valor and gallant spirit of self-sacrifice in saving the life of a comrade, served to inspire all who observed him. His unyielding devotion to duty in the face of heavy odds reflects the highest credit upon himself and enhances the finest traditions of the United States naval service. He gallantly gave his life for another.”
His mother, Lois Kilmer, accepted the Medal on his behalf June 18, 1953, from Secretary of the Navy Robert B. Anderson. Kilmer was also awarded the Purple Heart, Korean Service Medal and the United Nations Service Medal.
He is buried in San Jose Burial Park in San Antonio, Texas. The Navy Inn at Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tenn., was named Kilmer Hall in his honor in January 2003.