The long journey home for a World War II veteran memorialized in the Campanile
Irvin Rink, a 1941 KU graduate, was assumed dead in 1943. His body was finally identified and returned home this month.
Published April 25, 2018
“I looked down about 60 feet or so and there was an American fighter plane laying on its back, a World War II fighter plane, and clearly it was a Grumman Wildcat,” said diver Mark Roche, who was taking a vacation to the Solomon Islands in 2008 when he came across an unusual site.
Roche, who had taken the trip to the Solomon Islands to explore wreckage from World War II, found a wrecked plane and its pilot at the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean, near Papua New Guinea.
“I found him in March of 2008, I went on a trip to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. I studied World War II all my life, and I especially wanted to go out there with the idea that I was going to dive on crashed aeroplanes and sunken ships for two weeks,” Roche said.
It was in a Sunken Grumman F4F Wildcat in which Roche recovered the remains of who he later found out was Lt. Irvin Edmund Rink, a WWII pilot and University alumnus from the class of 1941.
On Monday, April 16, Rink’s body was finally put to rest in Wichita, after having been missing in action since Aug. 4, 1943, according to the Wichita Eagle.
In actuality, Roche came across the particular plane encasing Rink’s body by chance. A collector himself, Roche owns a few types of planes from WWII, one of them being a Grumman F4F Wildcat, similar to the same plane that Rink went down in.
“I was showing pictures of them to my native guides and he said, ‘We know your aeroplanes and we’ve got a wreck we’d like you to look at,’” Roche said. “And the next day we took a boat ride for about an hour off of New Georgia Island — this was something special they wanted to show me on their own.”
Roche mentioned that on the islands, old plane wrecks are common among the local population, and are usually not thought twice about.
“When they told me about it, they said I would be the first white man to ever see it,” Roche said.
Getting into the water, Roche had about 30 minutes of oxygen in his tank to be able to survey the wreck.
“I swam around the plane to survey it and as I was going around the tale I found a canteen laying on the tale, kind of sitting upright — obviously somebody had picked it up and put it there — then next to the canteen, I saw something shiny, and it was a snap that fits onto a canteen pouch, and then a few inches from that I saw a human rib, and another rib, and then kind of followed a bone trail under the tail,” Roche said.
After the dive, Roche scheduled another visit to the wreck in order to spend his last day of the dive trip investigating the sunken Wildcat further.
Roche said that “in addition to bones, I found his flying goggles, a radio headset, canteen, obviously, the buckle off of the chin strap of his flying helmet, and the soles of his boots.”
After the trip, Roche brought the remains he found back to the Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.
“This was 2008,” Roche said. “And we finally got him identified July of last year. Ultimately, the folks at the research lab came up with two pilots that had been shot down in the same engagement on Aug. 4, 1943. In the location where I found Lt. Rink, they were the only two Wildcat fighters that went down in that area.”
Both Rink and the other pilot where part of the same squadron, VF27, that was based on the U.S.S. Suwannee.
Roche was able to attend the funeral in Wichita on April 16 and spend time with the family, continuing to connect the dots to Rink’s life.
“I’m happy to say that I spent the whole weekend with those people and we had a great funeral yesterday, and it was like a two-mile-long funeral procession going out to the cemetery,” Roche said.
During this visit, he was able to learn more about the day that Rink went missing.
According to the family, as relayed by Roche, Rink’s unit was on a mission to escort a marine general when they were attacked by Japanese fighters. Rink and another pilot, William “Billy” Clifton, were shot down in their planes.
Rink was not originally assigned to the mission where he and Clifton both lost their lives.
“The unit [he was a part of] shipped out that afternoon to go home,” Roche said. “He didn’t have to fly the mission; he flew the mission for somebody else who didn’t want to go because they didn’t want to take one more chance before they got a chance to come home. For whatever reason, Irvin went on the mission, and didn’t come back.”
The family also mentioned to Roche that Irvin was coming home to his girlfriend, Viola Ott, who he planned to marry shortly after returning.
Rink graduated the University of Kansas with a degree in petroleum engineering.
“If he came back, he would have been in the oil and gas business,” Roche said.
During the 1940s, the University offered classes in math, engineering, journalism, English, and a wide variety of other studies. However, due to the start of WWII, the University offered a handful of wartime specific training, including the Civilian Pilot Training Course. According to the Wichita Eagle, Rink was a participant of the Civilian Pilot Training Course at the University.
“Seven thirty a.m. is an ungodly hour. But there are students here at the great University of Kansas, who for the sake of learning and knowledge, arise five days in the week in time (we hope) to attend such and early meeting,” said an article in a 1940s University Yearbook in the Spencer Research Library. “They are the enrollees in the ground school of the Student Pilot Training Course being offered for a second time at the university.”
The class, according to the yearbook, would meet in Marvin Hall. Students learned the general principles of flight and air navigation.
However, not every student was accepted into the rigorous program.
“Of the 105 who turned in their applications about 75 passed the preliminary physical examination,” the yearbook said.
The course offered at the University prepared students for many aspects of flight and had an extensive training program, requiring 35 to 50 hours of work.
“Then, for the first 12 weeks a schedule will be drawn up where by each student will have 3 half-hour lessons per week,” the yearbook article reads. “The student cannot start his actual flying until he had had two weeks of free flight training paid for by the government.”
According to the Eagle, Rink graduated in 1941 having completed the Civilian Pilots Training Course. Immediately after graduation, he enlisted in the air force.
“May, 1942, he was commissioned a Lieutenant Junior Grade,”said Karen Rink, the wife of Irvin Rink’s nephew.
“To keep alive the memory of those K.U. men and women who served humanity so well in World War II, particularly those whose lives were taken in the conflict — that is the purpose of the Campanile,” said a commencement ceremony pamphlet for the Campanile on June 7, 1948, found in the Spencer Research Library.
After the end of WWII, the University created a memorial for all of the students who passed away during the war.
According to the program used at the opening of the memorial, the Campanile and Carillon cost a total of $250,000, and the scenic Memorial Drive costed another $250,000. However, all of the money needed for the monument was donated by alumni and supporting groups.
“This living memorial has been provided by gifts. Loving contributions large and small came into a common fund for a common purpose,” the program said.
That purpose was to show gratitude to those who were lost.
“This memorial will play an active part of the daily life of the student body through all the years to come,” the program said.
Now, 80 years later, Irvin has finally been put to rest.
Karen said the memorial was excellent.
“The pastor was great, Mark Roche spoke, [the pastor] based some of his scripture that was in the memorial of Irvin in ‘46,” she said.
The memorial also included the Lord's prayer, passages from the Bible, and a quote from Winston Churchill.
“There are over 72,000 MIAs from World War II alone,” Roche said. “People are still searching, and people are still missing, waiting to be discovered. However, we know now that now, after 85 years, Irvin Edmund Rink may finally rest in peace.”
Roche intends to return to the Solomon Islands to continue searching for Clifton.
Karen concluded, “As we were processing out, since Irvin has in the [Campanile] his name, we played the bell choirs on the way out.”