Col. James H. Kasler, the only person to be awarded the Air Force Cross three times and a man who spent nearly seven years in a North Vietnam prison camp during the Vietnam War, died Thursday in Florida.
Kasler, 87, was a longtime resident of Momence and developed and owned the South Shore Golf Course in Momence. He sold the golf course a few years ago.
A combat veteran of three wars — World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — Kasler was a fighter pilot and was recognized as an ace. He flew a combined 198 combat missions and was a prisoner of war from August 1966 until March 1973.
"He was one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation. His generation was the one that produced extraordinary people. He was one of them," said his son, James.
Kasler is survived by his wife, Martha, and three children.
"He believed in family, God and American — firmly," his son said.
Kasler earned 76 awards for valor and service. In addition to the three awards of the Air Force Cross, Kasler was decorated twice with the Silver Star, a Legion of Merit, nine awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Star Medals, two Purple Hearts and 11 awards of the Air Medal.
"He was a patriot who truly loved his country," said Brig. Gen. Jack Kotter, of Bourbonnais. "As a former prisoner of war, he will be the recipient of a military fly-over at his funeral. He certainly earned it."
Bill Cotter, of Momence, was a friend and one of the organizers who developed the Kasler-Momence Memorial Park on the grounds of Momence Junior High School.
"Col. Kasler was a true American hero. He was a humble man who never expected to be honored," he said. "He wasn't born here, but he came to love this town and the people here loved him."
Cotter noted that the Kankakee area will always have a reminder of Kasler and what he endured as a prisoner in Vietnam. He said Kasler found peace amid his abuse by designing a golf course in his mind. When he returned to America, he developed South Shore Golf Course.
His experiences were compiled in "Tempered Steel," a book published in 2005.
Among his peacetime activities, he served locally at the Riverside Medical Center Foundation, Momence Township Board and Municipal Trust & Savings Bank of Bourbonnais.
Cathy Boicken, Municipal bank president, described Kasler as the "most loyal, honest person" that someone could ever find.
"If he didn't agree about something, he let you know. There was not a lot of gray area with Jim," Boicken said. She noted it was Kasler who prodded her to rise to the position she now holds.
She added that she was a loan secretary at the bank back in 1980 when Kasler said she could be much more. "He said 'I know people. and you can do this,'" she said.
Gen. Kotter offered one final memory, he says he cannot forget.
"I talked to him at our Vintage Squadron meetings, and we played golf together," he said. "But I learned something from a documentary where he was interviewed about his time in B-29s.
"The interviewer asked him if he was scared of anything, and he said no. But then he thought about it and admitted that he was afraid of one thing: Heights. He said he went up the Eiffel Tower and couldn't walk out to the railing.
"Imagine the courage of a man afraid of heights, as a fighter pilot," Kotter said.