Kittle (Courtesy photo)
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Army Pvt. Leonard Kittle loved football and fast cars.
When he left Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, on emergency leave in October 1952 to visit his newborn daughter, Linda, he fell in love with being a father.
Kittle had been working for an oil company in his native Caney, Kansas, when he was drafted into the Army in February 1952 for what was supposed to be a two-year tour.
He did not live long enough to see the end of it.
Kittle was on his way back to Alaska from visiting his wife and newborn daughter when his plane crashed that November, killing all 52 people on board.
“He played football and basketball all through his high school years,” recalled his widow, Sandra Kozak, who met Kittle just as she began ninth grade.
Kittle had graduated by then, going to college for a semester before deciding it wasn’t his thing. He’d always loved the playing field more than the classroom; his mother loved to tell how he brought his report card home in first grade and boasted about all the pretty red marks.
Kozak was just 15 when she married Kittle. By 17, she was widowed.
During those final weeks home, she said, “he got to see some of his old friends. He just enjoyed being home. He loved being a dad.”
Caney’s chief of police notified Sandra of the crash. “He came down with a piece of paper. He sat down at the kitchen table and read it to us that the plane was missing.”
A telegram delivered news of Kittle’s death.
“It was very cold. Thank goodness I had Linda. I was just kind of lost,” said Kozak, who later remarried and had two more children.
About nine years after Kittle’s death, the family moved from Kansas to Wisconsin, where they still reside.
Knowing she couldn’t bring her husband home made the loss that much more painful, Kozak said. Officials at Elmendorf at the time were adamant: There was no chance of recovery.
So when she got a call in 2012 that the plane and some of the men’s remains had been found, “I thought it was some kind of scam. It took a little bit to convince me it was for real.”
Sandra and Linda tried not to get their hopes up that Kittle would be among those identified. “You just build yourself up that they wouldn’t find Leonard. But they did,” Sandra said.