- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
I recently submitted the name of Capt. Walter Francis Duke for consideration as the name of the proposed new Leonardtown elementary school. I offer the following information and documentation in support.
Walter Duke was born in Leonardtown on Aug. 6, 1921, one of nine children of Roland B. “Colonel” Duke and Lillian Drury Duke. Col. Duke ran Duke’s in Leonardtown, which was a soda fountain, cocktail lounge and movie theater in the 1940s. He served for many years as mayor of Leonardtown and chief of the Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department and was a member of the board of directors of Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative before St. Mary’s County was fully electrified.
His father and Walter’s grandfather, John Francis Duke, served as a St. Mary’s County school commissioner in the 1870s and again from 1902 until 1922. Roland Duke Jr., one of Walter’s brothers, taught for many years, retiring from the St. Mary’s County school system.
Walter grew up in Leonardtown in a Tom Sawyer world, graduating from St. Mary’s Academy in 1940 where he played football, was a proficient violinist and was president of his senior class and of the drama society. Shortly after graduation he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, transferring to the U.S. Army Air Corps upon the United States’ entry into war on Dec. 7, 1941. He received his second lieutenant’s commission at Napier Field, Ala. in August 1942, was promoted to first lieutenant before going overseas to India in April 1943 and received his captaincy in March 1943. In December 1943 he was assigned to a newly formed fighter squadron, the 459th, flying the then-new twin-engine P38 Lightnings just arrived in India.
In March 1944 the Southeast Asia command commenced concerted efforts to drive the Japanese air force out of Burma and the 459th flew daily over Burma. On March 11, 1944, Walter got his first official victory, shooting down two enemy aircraft, for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. During the period between March 11 and June 6, 1944, Capt. Duke was credited with downing 19 enemy planes and became Maryland’s leading war ace. On May 27 he received orders to come home. To celebrate his return, St. Mary’s County planned a Duke Day celebration in concert with the county’s fifth war loan campaign, of which his father was the chairman.
It was not to be. On the eve of the celebration word was received that Capt. Walter Duke had been missing in Burma since June 6. On that day on the western edge of a Burma valley his squadron had been surprised by the enemy. Capt. Duke radioed that he was missing his wingman and he was going to make a circle back to make sure he wasn’t in trouble. His wingman returned to base OK, but Duke did not. After the war it was discovered that when he had gone back to look for his wingman he had been jumped by a flight of Zeros; Duke had surprised the Japanese pilots by turning into them and downing three Zeros before he went to his death.
During his short life and career, Capt. Walter Francis Duke earned the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Purple Heart, the American Defense Medal, the American Campaign Medal and the Canadian War Medal. His unit received two distinguished unit citations.
For 68 years (1944 to 2012), Capt. Duke was missing in action. In 2012, his family was notified that his plane and remains have been found. At some time in the future he will be returned home and laid to rest with his family members and ancestors at the old St. Aloysius Cemetery on Cemetery Road in Leonardtown, which fittingly borders the proposed school site.
I would encourage school officials to honor one of Leonardtown’s greatest generation heroes by naming the proposed Leonardtown Elementary School in honor of Capt. Duke. I believe when one considers his family’s involvement in local education over the generations it becomes even more appropriate.
B. Kennedy Abell, Leonardtown