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St. Pete celebrates decorated WWII vet’s 100th birthday

Mark Parker



Retired Airforce Col. Kenneth Beckman, 100, was recently honored by the City of St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Mayor Ken Welch (left), Facebook.

Despite his apathy towards the limelight, retired Air Force Col. Kenneth Beckman has recently received a significant amount of attention.

Born Aug. 7, 1922, the expert navigator who survived 48 combat missions in B-17 bombers, also known as “the flying fortress,” over Europe during the height of World War II recently celebrated his centennial birthday. On Aug. 18, the City of St. Petersburg celebrated with him.

During Thursday’s council meeting, Mayor Ken Welch officially proclaimed that the city would recognize Aug. 7, 2022, as Col. Kenneth Beckman day. Several family members, some from as far away as Atlanta, made the trip to City Hall. While the decorated war hero – Beckman received the Air Force’s Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit and the Airman’s Medal – initially told Welch he did not wish to speak, he offered a succinct statement to city leaders.

“People ask me how I happened to get to my 100th birthday,” said Beckman. “And my answer is always the same – pure luck.

“I do everything wrong, but today is my lucky day.”

Councilmember Ed Montanari, also an Airforce veteran and pilot, was clearly moved by the occasion. He emphasized that Beckman’s story should be shared – not just throughout the city but also the state and nation.

Montanari said the actions and fortitude of Beckman’s generation, often referred to as the greatest, “was amazing.” He relayed visiting Normandy, France, earlier this year and contemplating the courage and sacrifice it took to storm those beaches as he walked among the thousands that made the ultimate sacrifice at the American Cemetery.

“I know you have a lot of friends that did not come home,” said Montanari. “And we want to stop and honor them. But while we’re doing that, we want to honor people like you that gave so much to sacrifice for our country.”

Following the council meeting, Beckman told the Catalyst how it felt to receive the recognition.

“I’m embarrassed,” he said with a laugh.

When asked to elaborate, the centenarian said he prefers remaining out of the limelight. He added that he becomes a bit abashed when people make him into a hero, as he was just one of the thousands that “did what they thought was best.”

According to his autobiography – which his second wife, Connie, graciously provided – Beckman entered the Naval Academy at 17. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army selected him for navigation school. After graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant, Beckman headed to England.

His 305th Bomb Group conducted missions during daylight while his British counterparts flew at night. Beckman said that his squadron was often “hammered” by German pilots. In October 1943, he was part of a group of 13 aircraft tasked with bombing the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory, a key cog in the Nazi war effort.

Only two aircraft returned.

The B-17 bomber, also known as the “flying fortress.” Photo courtesy of

Following his first tour, Beckman volunteered to serve as a lead navigator for large bombing formations. He said allied fighters had demolished most of the German air force by that point in the war. However, he relayed their anti-aircraft fire was incredibly accurate and likely deadlier than Nazi aircraft.

While he was never wounded, Beckman noted that his bombers were often full of bullet holes by the time they landed. During one particularly harrowing incident, Beckman recalled hanging his feet out of the escape hatch in the nose of the plane after German flak caused the right wing to catch fire.

Beckman wrote that aircrews often said that “you can count to five and the airplane’s gone,” so he began counting. He got to four, and just before he jumped, the bomber’s co-pilot yelled, “hold it, the fire’s out.”

A piece of flak ripped Beckman’s sheepskin flight suit from his ankle to hip that day, just missing his flesh. He later found a shard lodged in the navigation compartment and kept it as a souvenir.

Despite the massive losses the Air Force incurred flying over Europe, Beckman said he never put much thought into whether he would make it home alive.

“I was too busy doing other things to worry about what’s going to happen to me,” he said.

While losing so many of his fellow servicemen still weighs heavy on his heart nearly 80 years later, he said that is the unfortunate cost of war.

“Wars involve killing,” said Beckman. “It’s sad to see someone close to you that doesn’t make it. I had a number of friends that were in that category.”

Beckman credited his navigational charts and information from intelligence officers for his ability to safely lead his bombers through Nazi-occupied territory. He would mark the locations of the “big guns” and simply stated that he would ensure his pilots didn’t get close to the batteries.

Regarding his expert navigator title, Beckman said that just comes from experience. He spent a lot of time “getting acquainted” with Europe during his time in the war, Beckman added, and eventually could preemptively identify threats in cities across the continent.

Following 30 years of distinguished service in the Air Force, Beckman retired in 1972. However, his service continued.

The WWII veteran then spent 25 years as a divisional captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. He has also taught celestial navigation for the U.S. Power Squadrons – a nonprofit educational boating club – for the last 30 years.

Beckman expressed his love for boating and living on the water in St. Petersburg, where, 78 years after flying his last mission, every day of his retirement is “like Saturday.” While he again attributed it to luck, he is also grateful to have avoided any serious medical issues.

“I would say it’s just good fortunes,” said Beckman. “The good Lord picked me up and said, ‘go ahead and do what you’re doing.’”

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    August 20, 2022at7:46 pm

    What a wonderful story. These guys didn’t get the credit they deserved. Thank you.

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