Karl L. Polifka (1951/07/01)

No other Santa Cruz County war casualty equals Karl Polifka in national recognition.

Karl Lewis Polifka entered the world in Blessing, Texas, on December 1, 1910. He was the son of Charles and Pauline Polifka, who had moved to South Texas from New Mexico in October of that year. The Polifka family also included sons Leo, Joseph, Karl and Frank and daughter Helen.

About 1919, Charles Polifka moved his family to Watsonville, California and settled into a home on the Santa Cruz highway. During the early 1920s, Karl completed his elementary school education in the Pajaro Valley and entered Watsonville High School. Throughout his high school years he excelled on the school's football team, performed well scholastically and worked part time for the local newspaper. Polifka graduated from high school about 1929.

After high school, Karl studied pre-medicine for the next three years at the University of California and at the University of Texas. At this time, he became interested in flying and was known in the Watsonville area for his daredevil antics.

On October 18, 1931, Karl Polifka married Helen Elizabeth Gregg. Over the ensuing years Karl and Helen resided and worked in Santa Cruz County before moving to Oregon. During their two years in the Pacific Northwest, he was employed in the construction business.

In 1938 Polifka was accepted into the Army Air Corps cadet training program. After completing basic and flight instruction, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and awarded his wings. In 1940 the Army Air Corps sent him to its photography school to prepare him for air reconnaissance. From 1940-1942 Karl was stationed at Moffett Field, California, Fort Lewis, Washington, and Fort Richardson, Alaska, where he mapped air routes in Alaska and Western Canada. During this period, a son, Karl Lewis Polifka Jr., was born to Karl and Helen.

Polifka gained national fame in 1942 while flying an unarmed P-38 over the Pacific to obtain photos of enemy naval activities. On one occasion he spotted a number of Japanese vessels that turned out to be the main Japanese battle force steaming across the Pacific. That fleet was defeated at the Battle of the Coral Sea as a result of the information that he provided. He continued to defy enemy aircraft in order to take over 1500 photographs of their activities at Guadalcanal.

On several occasions local residents found Polifka's name appearing in such journals as the New York Daily News. In January 1943, an article by correspondent James Cullinane recounted one of Polifka's exploits.

"Pop" Polifka, as he was now called, was sent to North Africa and then assigned to Italy where he headed up the Mediterranean Allied Photo Reconnaissance Command. While in Italy, another article, this time in Time magazine reported:
β€œ"Pop" Polifka was grounded. He fought like a stuck pig to dice Cassino, said an officer on Lieut. General Ira Eaker's staff in Italy, "but the General just wouldn't let him go on another mission." Pop, who is 33-year-old Colonel Karl L. Polifka, had been "dicing" (mapping territory by aerial photography) for years, had flown 125 missions over enemy-held territory, both German and Jap. Eaker figured Pop was too valuable to lose, thought he had better ground him before Pop's luck ran out.”

During World War II, Karl Polifka ran up the exceptional total of 173 missions from bases in Australia, New Guinea, North Africa, England and Guam and became Watsonville's most decorated war hero. He was the holder of the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Croix de Guerre with gold star and palm, the presidential unit citation with five oak leaf clusters and others; eventually, he received every US award for valor except the Congressional Medal of Honor.

In February 1945, Karl returned to the Pacific Theater as an air intelligence officer for the 10th Army in Okinawa and following VJ Day, was sent to Washington, D. C., to serve on the army-navy operational review board and at the Navy Staff College.

When the Korean War began, Polifka was given command of the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, which by April 1951, had flown over 3000 missions.

β€œOn July 1st, 1951, Colonel Karl L. Polifka was flying an F-51 near Kaesong, Korea, just south of the 38th Parallel. He sighted some enemy ground activity and descended to take a closer look. He circled the area keeping a keen look out and mentally recording all he saw. He noticed the flashes of the small arms fire; but paid it no particular heed until he felt his Mustang shudder with the impact of several bullets. He fought with the controls as the aircraft began to fall out of the sky; but it was no use. He had to bail out. He released his canopy and exited the spinning aircraft. Unfortunately, his opening parachute caught on the fuselage and he went down with the aircraft, impacting with the ground and dying instantly. The following day air rescue recovered his body."

At the time of his death, Polifka's promotion to brigadier general was before President Truman for approval.

In 1997, forty-six years after his death, a special honor was prepared for Karl Polifka. A new three-million-dollar headquarter building at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas was dedicated in his honor. A special portrait of him was completed and was hung inside the building. Unveiling the portrait of his father during the ceremony was Retired Colonel Karl L Polifka Jr.

Colonel Karl Lewis Polifka is buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California.

(ABMC; USDVA; WRP May 19, 1942 1:1, January 26, 1943 1:3, July 6, 1951 1:1; Mary E R Bell Deutchburg History. Polifka' http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~txmatago/deutschburg_hist7. htm, [16 September 2008]; The 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in Korea1951 - 1954 by Doug Gordon, 2002 http://www.cottonpickers.org/the_67th_tactical_reconnaissance_ wing_in_korea,_1951-1954.htm, Global Security.org, Air Force News, http://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/library/news/1997/ n19970819_971030.html, [16 September 2008])

Creator: Nelson, Robert L.
Source: Remembering our own: the Santa Cruz County military roll of honor 1861-2010. Santa Cruz, CA: The Museum of Art & History, c2010.
Date: Undated
Type: OBIT
Coverage: 1950s
Rights: Reproduced by permission of Robert L. Nelson and The Museum of Art & History.
Identifier: RO-POLIFKA


Nelson, Robert L. “Karl L. Polifka (1951/07/01).” Remembering our own: the Santa Cruz County military roll of honor 1861-2010. Santa Cruz, CA: The Museum of Art & History, c2010. SCPL Local History. https://history.santacruzpl.org/omeka/items/show/4787. Accessed 19 Apr. 2024.