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Thomas Koritz – Koritz Field

Grave of Major Thomas F. Koritz

Major Thomas F. Koritz was born August 10th, 1953 in Rochelle, Illinois. Throughout his life, he motivated and inspired individuals not only in his community, but throughout the military as an Air force officer and pilot. On January 16, 1991, he was killed in action as well as his crew member Lt. Col. Donnie Holland while conducting a bombing mission during Operation Desert Storm (Parsons 1991).

Early life

Thomas Koritz was born to Dr. Lloyd and Mary Koritz in the rural farming community of Rochelle, Illinois. Kortiz is remembered as a star in football, basketball, track, and weightlifting, as well as a hard-working student while attending Rochelle Township High school. While in high school, Koritz had an interest in aircraft and had spent much of his free time around the local airport (which now bears his name). After graduation, Koritz decided to further his education and attended the college of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in pursue of a biology degree. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from U of I, and then following in the footsteps of his father and brother who were physicians, enrolled in the medical program in Rockford (UPI 1991). He enlisted in the Air Force during his residency after medical school, and on October 8, 1982 was the first pilot-physician with an M.D. to earn his silver wings. At the time, only five air force pilots were also flight surgeons (Parsons 1991).

Koritz  was also involved in the community while he was training. As Mr. Hud Hudnall, 14th Student Squadron Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) Simulator instructor recounts, “He was a great pilot and great guy. I remember working to get him special permission to work in the Emergency Room at the hospital downtown on the weekends because he just wanted to help out” (Johnson, 2013). Koritz earned the title “Top Gun” after F-15 training. Koritz’s family knew that because of his great flying skills, he would probably see action after the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussien’s Iraqi army. “I had hoped that, as a flight surgeon, he wouldn’t be in the front lines, but he’s such a dedicated, gung-ho flier, I’m sure he wanted to be there,” explained his cousin Gary Koritz (UPI 1991). Koritz’s squadron was deployed to Saudi Arabia when Operation Desert Storm began on January 15, 1991 (Chicago Tribune 1991).

Increased Tensions

On August 2, 1990 the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. The initial response from the UN called for a trade ban on Iraq and denounce the invasion, hoping the Iraqis would conclude that they should withdraw from the region leaving the twenty percent of the global oil reserves they had taken over.

While much of the American public supported sanctions, President Bush believed it would not be strong enough deterrents to cause the withdraw from Kuwait (History 2009). This withdraw was necessary, for as Directive 45 of August 20, 1990 stated,

U.S interests in the Persian Gulf are vital to the national security. These interests include access to oil and the security and stability of friendly states in the region. The United States will defend its vital interests in the area, through the use of U.S. military force if necessary and appropriate, against any power with interests inimical to our own. ( Knecht, 2010)

On August 7, Operation Desert Shield began. Thomas Koritz and other select individuals in his tactical fighter squadron were deployed to Seeb Air base, Oman (Kolmer 2016). The purpose of the Operation was to contain the Iraqi Army and defend oil-rich Saudi Arabia, where many of the Kuwaiti government officials fled after the invasion. While Desert Shield was underway, Saddam Hussein did not plan on reversing his decision on annexing Kuwait. After tensions continued to rise while Iraq’s army built up to 300,000 troops, the U.N agreed to authorize the use of force if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. As with any war, public opinion was vital to the success of the military. During this time of buildup between both the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces, Saddam promised to lead the Americans into a ground war which would be a “mother of all battles” (History 2009). He calculated that  the U.S. was “a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle” because of the sentiment post-Vietnam and the media at the time (Knecht, 2010). Saddam knew that the United States with the U.N.-backed coalition was far superior to his standing army in Kuwait; however, Saddam did believe if he were to make the war incredibly bloody and violent, that the public opinion would cause the U.S. to retreat, and the Iraqis would be able to retain control of Kuwait. When the deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait came and passed, the U.S led the offensive named Operation Desert Storm. This operation was led by an air campaign which involved Koritz’s 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

Operation Desert Storm

As the U.N. promised, on January 15, the U.S started flying missions over Iraqi-controlled Kuwait which involved twenty-four F-15E “Strike Eagles”, quickly supported by another twenty-one F-15Es from the 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron (History 2009). The initial mission was to destroy the Iraqi Scud missile sites that were heavily defended by means of anti-aircraft and patrolling fighter jets. While flying to the checkpoint, the crew had to refuel “blind”, that is, without lights or radio communication. The crew knew the anti-aircraft capabilities Iraq had attained such as the AAA surface-to-air missiles and other fighter jets and did not want them to be given the opportunity to take down one of the newly instituted F-15Es early in the campaign. When the strike group finished refueling, they reached their objective and began to engage the Iraqi Scud launchers and three Iraqi MiG 29s that counterattacked. After quickly turning the night to-day and bombing the site and taking down two of the three MiGs, the strike force returned to base after a successful night.

On the night of January 17, 1991, the most dangerous mission of the war was issued to Major Thomas Koritz, his crewmate Lt. Donnie Holland, and other members of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing. The mission was to target a petrol, oil, and lubrication plant near Basrah, Iraq. The mission as described resembled the Ploesti raid in WWII, where the U.S tried to deny the Axis access to oil, in order to halt their mechanized units in the European theater (Kolmer 2016). Despite the initial success of the F-15E pilots in the mission, the Iraqis downed their first Strike Eagle: the one flown by Major Thomas Kortiz. While Koritz and Holland were MIA, there was still much hope for their survival because Iraq initially boasted in a CNN broadcast on January 20, 1991 that they had captured some coalition forces (pownet). Many of the individuals from Kortiz’s hometown of Rochelle held their breath as some remembered how American POWs from previous wars such as World War II, Korea, and Vietnam were returned home after the conflict ended. For the next forty days after Koritz and Holland went missing, only one other Strike Eagle was shot down, and in that case, both members were able to eject, were captured as POWs, and were held until the war ended on March 1, 1991. When Iraq withdrew from Kuwait and the POWs were released, it was discovered that Major Thomas Koritz and Lt. Donnie Holland had not been be taken prisoner, but had died in the crash of their F-15E.

F-15E Strike Eagle leading formation over oil field in Operation Desert Storm. (from 335th Fighter Squadron)

The Aftermath

In his hometown of less than 10,000 people, Thomas Koritz was no less than a local legend when he left in 1971 to join the military and practice medicine, so the community was shocked when he was declared MIA. Koritz was one of only five Air Force surgeons who were also pilots, which caused much attachment to him by other members of the community. “Everybody in the community has always admired him so much,” said Marjorie Hayes, who had a child that attended school with Koritz (UPI 1991). Friday January 18, the day after Koritz went missing, officials told the news to the spectators at a Rochelle High School basketball game. Koritz’s former teacher at the school, Dick Shutte, witnessed the event and said, “There were probably a thousand people,” and “The entire audience was just stunned” (Mcfadden, 1991). The community then had a moment of silence and prayed for his safe return. Reactions in the community were in disbelief after the event occurred. Connie Garrison, a neighbor to Koritz felt almost excited, as was most of the community, and the rest of the nation, when Operation Desert Storm was put into action, but when Koritz went MIA, she described the situation as, “hard when it starts hitting home like this” (Parsons, 1991).

On March 21, 1991, Koritz’s family held a memorial and visitation in Rochelle. Koritz was survived by his wife Julianne, three sons Timothy, Jon, and Scott as well as his sister and two brothers (Chicago Tribune 1991). On July 4, 1991, the Rochelle Municipal Airport honored Koritz by changing its name to “Koritz Field”, a name immediately adopted but he locals. In 2002, his body was recovered and his military status was changed to from MIA to KIA (POWNETWORK 2013). While the community honors Major Thomas Koritz, they are not alone. The 14th Medical Group Clinic, and the 4th Medical Clinic at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Wayne County,  NC also bears his name. His son Jon, now second Lieutenant, graduated from pilot training on August 16, 2013. Jon Koritz explained the importance to him of “walk[ing] across this stage, the same stage my father walked across with class 82-01 to receive his wings,” which was “a very special moment for me and my family” (Johnson, 2013).  On August 2, 2013 Koritz had learned he received his assignment to the F-15E Strike Eagle, the same aircraft his father was assigned to when he served.

While the public has the right to either approve or disapprove the actions the United States took in Operation Desert Storm, or the Middle East in general, there is no case against the great life and inspiration in which Thomas Koritz left on his hometown, as well as the other communities in which he resided. As the pastor of his hometown explained, “He was a real jokey, ‘Top Gun’ kind of stuff” (UPI 1991). While individuals new to Rochelle may hear the phrase ‘Koritz Field,’ and think solely of the Rochelle Municipal Airport, many family friends, and others in the community remember the honors student, star athlete, and volunteer who was a hero for his neighbors, both young and old. Thomas Koritz may have died during Operation Desert Storm, but his legacy in his hometown of Rochelle, Illinois, and the other communities in which his family resides will not be forgotten.

Primary Sources

  1.  Parsons, Christi, and Michael Martinez. (1991). “Gulf War Strikes At Heart of Rural Illinois Town,” Proquest. Chicago Tribune.
  2.  McFadden, Robert. (1991). “WAR IN THE GULF: The Missing; Despite Downed Jets, Those at Home Retain Hope,” The New York Times.
  3.  Anon. (1991).  “Maj. Tom Koritz, War Victim,” Chicago Tribune.
  4. Anon. (1991). “Missing pilot loved the action,”  UPI
  5.  Johnson, Sonic. (2013). “Air Force 2nd Lt. Jon Koritz Pilot Carrries Father’s Legacy Forward” ThankYouForYourService

Secondary Sources

  1. Knecht, Thomas. (2010). “OPERATION DESERT STORM: Decision, Implementation, and Review.” Paying Attention to Foreign Affairs: How Public Opinion Affects Presidential Decision Making. 113-40.
  2. Anon. (2013). “Koritz, Thomas F.,” POWNETWORK
  3. History Staff. (2009). “1990: Iraq Invades Kuwait,” History 
  4. Kolmer, Ben. (2016). “DESERT STORM: The Strike Eagle’s opening act,” Air Combat Command
  5. Johnson, Sonic. (2013). “Who is Tom Koritz,” Columbus Air Force srahse.

For Further Reading