Former Vance Pilot Remembers Sister, Catholic Nun Among Colleagues Killed During Liberia’s Brutal Civil War

By James Neal |

“She was into peace and justice.” That’s how retired Air Force colonel and former Vance Air Force Base student pilot Fred McGuire remembers his older sister, Kathleen McGuire.

Kathleen was among five nuns from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ convent in Ruma, Ill., killed while serving in war-torn Liberia in 1992.

Kathleen was the middle of five children, of what Fred described as “a good Catholic family” in Ridgway, a town of fewer than 900 people in rural southeastern Illinois.

Fred, who was eight years younger than Kathleen, or “Kay,” as she was known to the family, said his sister did not wait long to enter the Adorers.

“After grade school, she took off to the convent at Ruma,” Fred said. It was a family calling, of sorts — two cousins also entered the convent.

Fred continued on at the family farm, and largely lost touch with Kathleen as she became immersed in her life as a nun. After high school, Fred enrolled at Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, Ill.

After his sophomore year, as the Vietnam War heated up, Fred received his draft notice. But, he wasn’t waiting to be drafted.

He completed the ROTC program at Southern Illinois, and was commissioned in the Air Force in 1968.

It wasn’t until after he entered the Air Force that Fred had the chance to meet up with Kathleen more often, and get to know the older sister who’d left home when he was a young child.

It did not take long to know Kathleen as a fearless advocate for social justice, Fred said.

She’d share stories of her work in South America, and with immigrants seeking asylum, and invite him along to protests in Washington, D.C.

“She would always take me down to whatever protest group they were doing,” Fred said. The greater the stakes, the more Kathleen seemed determined to stay, Fred said.

“She’d always insist on staying down there,” he said. Even if he hesitated, she’d insist on staying with her sisters and other advocates. “She’d always say, ‘Just drop me off, I’ll be fine,’” Fred said.

That quiet determination and courage shone through again when Kathleen was a principal at a Catholic high school in a rough neighborhood in East St. Louis, Ill.

“She’d been robbed two different times when she was there, and it never seemed to bother her,” Fred said. “She was just dedicated to her students.”

Fred said his older sister’s courage was an inspiration to him in his own career in the Air Force.

He completed pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Class 69-07. His time at Vance included one particularly eventful flight in January 1969, when his T-38 suffered engine trouble, and he was forced to eject over Ringwood in Major County.

A traveling salesman picked up Fred after he safely parachuted to the ground, and a helicopter from the base later returned him to Vance.

His classmates wrote this tongue-in-cheek account of the incident in the class yearbook: “Whilst driving toward the ground, unassisted by engines, Fred decided it was time for a silk let-down. He successfully completed the mission; however, his time log now shows one more take-off than landing.”

Fred went on to fly KC-135 tankers, and then flew helicopter gunships for Special Operations missions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Fred McGuire retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1992, the same year Kathleen was killed in Liberia.

Looking back on his sister Kathleen’s legacy, Fred remembers her as a woman who risked it all to serve her students, out of a sense of love and devotion.

“I think Kay and these nuns were back there out of devotion,” Fred said, “especially to bring the young girls of Liberia out of the terrible situation they were in.”


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