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Tigers: Tracking a Legend
Ira "Ike" Kepford
Lt. Cmdr. Ira "Ike" Kepford of Muskegon, Michigan was one of the top naval fighter aces in World War II. He is credited with 16 confirmed and proven air-to-air combat victories.
Kepford scored his victories in six engagements between November 11, 1943 and February 19, 1944. He was a member of the elite VF-17 "Jolly Rogers" squadron flying F4U-1A Corsair Fighters. This squadron produced more aces than any other fighter squadron in World War II. Kepford was the highest scoring of these aces.
The Japanese deployed their best fighter squadrons in these engagements in a desperate attempt to try and hold their bases in the Bougainville - Rabaul Area. VF-17, with then Ensign Ira Kepford, was among the air units deployed against them in what is known as a "tip of the spear" formation, meaning right in front. The Japanese air forces were completely decimated and incurred losses that they were never able to replace.
After February 19, 1944, the Japanese withdrew what little remained of their air forces. They ceased to defend Rabaul from any air attacks.
These were primarily bomber escort missions for VF-17. Neither bombers nor ships were lost to enemy air attack while under the protection of VF-17. Kepford was more proud of this than his personal victories in air-to-air combat.
Kepford was born to George and Emma Kepford on May 29, 1919 in Illinois. The Kepford family moved to Muskegon, Michigan shortly after Ike was born. He was an outstanding scholar and athlete at Muskegon Sr. High School. A blocking back on the championship football teams, he was captain of the State Championship 1937 team and elected to the All-State Team. This was in spite of his small size: 135 lb. From there, Ike went on to Northwestern University where he repeated academic and athletic performance. He captained the 1939-41 teams that won national ranking. His football experiences undoubtedly prepared him well for his career as a fighter pilot.
Ike enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on August 18, 1941. He received his flight training at Naval Air Stations, Corpus Christi, Texas and Miami, Florida and graduated at the top of his class. He was assigned to VF-17 in December, 1942.
After VF-17 was decommissioned on April 10, 1944, Kepford was attached to Fleet Air, Alameda, Command. He served the last six months of 1944 with VF-84. In December, 1944 he was transferred to the Staff of the Commander Fleet Air, West Coast. He served in that assignment for the remainder of the war. Under these assignments, Ike helped train and prepare the VF-84 for combat and helped qualify the Grumman F8F Bearcat Fighter for operational service.
After the war, Ike married Miss Esther M. Kraegal. They had two children together, a daughter Tracy and a son Tim. Ike pursued a business career with the Liggett-Rexall Drug Company following the war and later became its president. He retired in the early 1970s and settled in Harbor Springs, Michigan. He remained there until he passed away on January 19, 1987. Ike Kepford was highly successful as a scholar, an athlete, a fighter pilot and a businessman.
Kepford was awarded the Navy Cross for his Nov. 11 mission; Gold Star in lieu of Navy Cross for his Jan. 29 mission; Silver Star for actions from his Jan. 27 to Feb. 19; Distinguished Flying Cross for actions from his Oct. 27 to Dec. 1 missions; Ribbon for the Navy Unit Commendation VF-17; American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; and World War II Victory Medal.
Kepford was enshrined into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame on October 7, 2006 for his skill and heroism beyond the call of duty, and gallantry and audacity as a fighter pilot in VF-17 during World War II.