Leadership, valor, mentorship, vision logoMedal of Honor profile: MG Charles Kilbourne Jr.

For service in the Philippine Insurrection (1899)

Charles Evans Kilbourne Jr. is the only Signal officer to win the Medal of Honor while performing a combat communications mission. The Signal Officer Basic Course at Fort Gordon, Ga., named its leadership award for him, and the Signal Regiment inducted him as a Distinguished Member of the Regiment in 1997.

A Signal Corps officer�s son, Kilbourne was born in 1872 at Fort Whipple, Va. � later renamed Fort Myer � and spent most of his boyhood years at Army installations. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1894 with a degree in civil engineering, then worked as a surveyor in New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest.  He was an observer with the U.S. Weather Bureau until the war with Spain in 1898.

As America went to war, he joined the Volunteer Signal Corps, an expansion of the regular Signal Corps assigned to provide tactical communications to the rapidly expanding Regular Army. To be accepted as an officer in the VSC, the applicant had to be adept in an electrical vocation or telegraphy. Kilbourne was one of the few commissioned VSC officers appointed for his leadership potential rather than for his technical expertise.

Kilbourne was assigned to First Company, VSC, and shipped out with MG Arthur MacArthur�s expedition to the Philippine Islands, where he participated in the campaign against Spanish forces climaxing in the seizure of Manila. Following the end of hostilities with Spain, the Philippine Insurrection erupted Feb. 4, 1899. The following day, Kilbourne earned a place in history and the MoH. According to the MoH citation, �Within ... 250 yards of the enemy and in the face of rapid fire, [he] climbed a telegraph pole at the east end of [Paco Bridge] and, in full view of the enemy, coolly and carefully repaired a broken telegraph wire, thereby re-establishing telegraphic communication to the front.�

After Kilbourne returned to the United States, he applied and was accepted in the Regular Army as an infantry officer in 14th Infantry Regiment. In late 1899, he participated in the Boxer Rebellion in China, where he led his platoon in the assault that captured the Imperial City Gates. After helping suppress the rebellion, his regiment returned to duty in the Philippines, where he performed duties with the provost marshal�s office. It was during this tour that Kilbourne made an important career decision; in 1902 he requested and was granted a branch transfer to the Artillery Corps.

Transferred to Fort Monroe, Va., to attend the artillery school, he was his class�s honor graduate and was assigned as the post district adjutant, a highly competitive and reputable position in his day. He served in this position for two years. Promoted to captain in 1905, he assumed successive commands of coast-artillery companies.

While commanding 35th Company, Coast Artillery Corps, Kilbourne returned to the Philippines to defend Manila Bay. Kilbourne began constructing an elaborate defensive-fortifications system on Corregidor Island. These fortifications were to significantly affect the course of world events. In fact, the British credited Kilbourne�s construction with saving Australia by delaying Japanese advances at the beginning of World War II. (His efforts were finally completed in 1932 when, as a brigadier general, he commanded all of Manila�s harbor defenses.)

In 1909 Kilbourne left Corregidor to assume his duties as inspector, and later as superintendent, of the Philippine Constabulary Bureau and School. His outstanding performance was not limited to the training environment. When Moro guerrillas threatened the local area, he undertook several tactical operations against them.

In 1911 he was assigned to the War Department General Staff, where he developed plans for the defense of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He served in several staff positions for the next six years. While serving as chief of staff, Southeastern Department, in Charleston, S.C., Kilbourne recognized the need for a Regular Army post in that section of the country. His foresight led to the establishment of Fort Jackson, S.C.

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, MG Leonard Wood selected him to be his chief of staff of 89th Infantry Division. In preparing to move the division to France, Kilbourne made a predeployment, fact-finding trip to the front in France, where a mortar shell seriously wounded him. He returned to Camp Funston, Kan., where 89th Infantry Division was training for the European theater. Not deterred by his wounds, Kilbourne led the division�s advance party to France and prepared the way for 89th Infantry Division�s entry into combat.

Once the division was in combat, the chief of staff set an example in leadership by �moving among the forward units, reorganizing them and urging forward.� Kilbourne earned the Distinguished Service Cross during the St. Mihiel offensive.

In October 1918, he was promoted to brigadier general and commanded both 36th Artillery Brigade and 3rd Infantry Brigade of 2d Division. MG John Lejune, 2d Division�s commander, said of Kilbourne that he executed his duties in an �excellent, able, conscientious and painstaking� manner. In fact, Kilbourne�s performance in these last two assignments earned him the Distinguished Service Medal. He was the only soldier at that time to hold the nation�s three highest awards.

Upon his return to the United States and the reduction of the military�s size, Kilbourne reverted to his permanent rank of major in the Regular Army. Assigned as an instructor and student to the Army War College in Washington, D.C., he graduated with honors and later became a course director at the college. By 1928 he was promoted to brigadier general in the Regular Army and served another tour in the Philippines. He was assigned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in 1936 as a major general, where he commanded 2d Division until his retirement Dec. 31, 1936.

He then served as superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute for nine years until he retired from that post for health reasons. Kilbourne died Nov. 12, 1963, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

MG Charles Evans Kilbourne Charles Kilbourne as superintendent of Virginia Military Institute, circa 1938. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Military Institute archives.)
JFK greets Kilbourne at White House lawn party President John F. Kennedy greets Kilbourne in early 1963 at a lawn party hosted by the White House for Medal of Honor recipients. Kilbourne was the oldest MoH recipient present, according to Kilbourne family historian Jim Kilburn. A few months after this photograph was taken, Kilbourne died and Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

�He died a week before [President John F.] Kennedy and was buried in Arlington with of course much the same ceremony � the riderless horse, the caisson � it was magnificent and unspeakably sad,� said Kilbourne�s granddaughter, Lisa Tracy, in an email to Army Communicator�s editor in October 2001. �I returned from his funeral only to witness it again on television, the private mourning escalated into a national tragedy. It was a very strange time.�

JFK is said by members of the Kilbourne family to have remarked at Kilbourne�s funeral that �it�s so peaceful, I could stay here [at Arlington] forever.� This comment turned out to be prophetic, as the president was assassinated in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963, and was also buried in Arlington.

(Editor�s note: most of this profile is based on the �Charles E. Kilbourne: a study in leadership� by CPT Paul Hughes, published in Army Communicator�s Summer 1985 edition.)

Acronym quickscan
MoH � Medal of Honor
VSC � Volunteer Signal Corps

dividing rule

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