A supreme sacrifice: Man won Carnegie Medal for selfless heroism

By Jimmy Tomlin/ The High Point Enterprise

Dec. 3—HIGH POINT, NORTH CAROLINA — A modest grave marker at Oakwood Cemetery tells the day that Don R. Kirkman died — July 24, 1919 — but it doesn’t tell the remarkable story of the hero who lies buried there.

The 27-year-old High Pointer, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, had recently returned home from fighting in France, buoyed by an Allied victory in the Great War. He had lined up a furniture sales job, a position he planned to keep until he was financially stable enough to open his own law practice in town.

Best of all, on that very day, he had just arrived at Wrightsville Beach, where he planned to spend time with the family of his fiancée, Florence Burkheimer, at their summer cottage along the Banks Channel. It was the first time Don had seen Florence since returning from the war, so their reunion must’ve been a joyous one. Also, in just a few short days, Florence would turn 27, and Don likely planned on visiting long enough to help her celebrate.

Tragically, Don would not live to see his fiancée’s birthday, and there would be no celebration. Here’s what happened on that fateful day more than a century ago:

That afternoon, around 3:30, Florence’s younger sister, Annie, went for a swim in the channel.

While the channel waters could sometimes be treacherous, the family had lived in the cottage all summer , so surely Annie had swum there often and knew to be careful.

On this day, though, Annie quickly found herself in distress as she battled the powerful current. From the cottage’s veranda, about 100 yards away, Don saw his fiancée’s sister struggling and acted quickly.

Earlier that day, Don had admitted to the others at the cottage that while he was certainly athletic — he’d played basketball and track — he was not a particularly strong swimmer. Nonetheless, when he saw Annie in distress, he took off running, removing his coat as he ran, and dived into the water.

When Don reached Annie, still flailing, she frantically threw her arms around him, and they sank out of sight. Moments later, Annie bobbed back up to the surface. Don did not.

A couple of nearby Boy Scouts saw what was happening and rushed into the water to rescue Annie. They managed to get her to shore, but death hovered closely over her. A doctor and others who were nearby tried to resuscitate her, but it was too late.

Poor Florence, who had been with Don, watched as her sister and her fiancé perished. Her true love now gone, she never married.

News of the drownings spread quickly in the community. Hundreds of friends rushed to the cottage to offer their condolences, “and there was gloom over the beach such as is seldom seen,” The Wilmington Morning Star reported. The paper praised Don’s bravery, writing that observers said “they had never seen a more unselfish and chivalrous act” when the young man “cast away all thought of himself and gave his life in an effort to save another.”

Nearly 24 hours would pass before Don’s body would be recovered, but the news of his death — and his heroism — had reached High Point long before that.

“He was without a doubt one of the most promising young men of the city, one of many splendid qualities,” The High Point Enterprise wrote.

The following year, Don was posthumously awarded a prestigious Carnegie Medal — the nation’s highest honor for civilian heroism — for his supreme sacrifice. He was the first High Pointer — and still one of only three — to win the award, which was presented to his parents, Gurney and Jennie Kirkman.

More than a century later, Don Kirkman’s name has largely been forgotten, but the same should never be said of his noble sacrifice.

This article first appeared in the Dec. 3, 2022, edition of the High Point (North Carolina) Enterprise. It was reprinted with permission from the author.

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