Friday, February 27, 2015

Profile 98: FINISHED— "Kunk's Klunk," the P-38J flown by James Kunkle

DONE!  (whew!)  Presenting "Kunk's Klunk"—the P-38J as flown by James Kunkle, 370th FG.  Take it in because in a few minutes, it's going to get blown to pieces.

So.  Let's get back to where we left off (in December)...

"BREAK!  BREAK!"  Jim hollered.  "BREAK!"

But there was no break.  A few fruitless twists of knobs and flicking of switches made Jim realize that his radio was out!  And being the last guy in the formation, any waggling of the wings was useless, especially with target just ahead...what's a guy to do?


Jim hauled his P-38 into a tight left turn, climbing slightly, and rolling wings-level just as the onrushing gray swarm materialized into a formation of 20+ German fighters.  Though alone and certainly outgunned, the initial merge favored Jim; the enemy's focus was broken, allowing the rest of the mission to put precious distance between itself and the attackers.
Go ahead and count the little Fw-190s.  And then count Jim in the P-38.
Ummm, yeah...
If you wonder how that works, imagine the scene as a school of fish disrupted by a stone.  Instantly, the fish scatter.  But these aerial "fish" were not minnows.   Instead, they were piranhas.  And Jim was no pebble.  He was fresh meat.

Hold that thought for a moment...

A few weeks ago, a severely disturbed man walked into an office with a weapon and started another damnable headline story.  One died, another was injured.  The toll might have higherl had it not been for a guy named Brian Roesler who jumped up to tackle the gunman.  You can read about it here, but suffice it to state, Roesler's quote to the newspaper is interesting, "I didn't know what else to do."

I thought that quote rather telling in that Brian actually had a number of options, many of which would have been reasonable, if not "smart."  But instead, he thought to act as he did and in so doing, probably saved a few lives.
Brian Roesler.  Photo: Joe Ahlquist / Sioux Falls Argus Leader)
Ok, keep that in the back of your mind while we return to 1944...

The dogfight was intense.  In quick succession, the Germans snapped-to and pointed their noses at the odd-shaped American in their midst.  This was going to be an easy kill.

Kunkle, in the swarm, was able to unleash his  four .50 caliber machine guns and 20mm cannon against the targets that flashed past his nose.  Boom! chakachakachakachaka Boom! chakachackachaka Boom!

In the whirl of g-forces, Jim managed to knock one, then two Germans out of the sky.  I asked the—now that I think about it—ridiculous question, "So tell me the details behind the two you shot down!"   My question was met by a warm chuckle as Jim replied, "Really?!" Another laugh.  "I'm afraid I was a little preoccupied to remember those details!"

However, there were some memories of that combat that simply couldn't be forgotten.

"I remember my left wing.  A one-ninety was behind and to my left and he walked his bullets right up the wing towards (the cockpit).  The airplane shook and then fire blasted out the cold-air vent, down by my leg and up towards my face.  The flames shot out like a blow torch."

"And then?"

"Not quite sure.  The airplane blew up.  My next memory is falling face-down through a cloud."
I took no joy in doodling this scene.  Other than that Jim made it out.
The combat had taken place about seven, maybe eight thousand feet.  Jim remembered the cloud deck was around five thousand, so he'd fallen at least half a mile, buffeted by the wind and pained by the peeling of burned flesh from  hands and face.  Miraculously,  he had enough presence of mind to grasp the "D-ring" of the parachute release and tug it open.

SNAP!

Parachutes don't float people to the ground like a feather.  They simply reduce the speed of falling to the point to where a human can survive the impact.  Approaching  earth at approximately 22 feet per second, Jim's fall wasn't the elegant descent of today's sky divers.  If you want to get an idea of what Jim went through, climb up onto the highest peak (or 22', whichever comes first) of your roof and jump.

BANG!

But, it didn't hurt quite as bad as it could have because luck would have it that Jim's parachute snagged a proudly standing tree, smack-dab in the middle of a European courtyard.   With the same force as coasting a bicycle into a brick wall, he strained to a wood-crackling halt, hung for a moment, then released himself to fall the few remaining feet to earth.
My cheesy map.  Kunkle was a few short minutes (flight-time) from one of the greatest battles of WWII.
In case you're not up on  WW2 history, there are two things of significance about Aachen at the time.  For one, some 80 miles to the north, the British were a day away from their oddly-planned* parachute assault called, "Operation Market Garden."  Ever hear of the movie "A Bridge Too Far"?   That.  For two, the American Army had just crossed the Rhine river and had advanced into the Aachen area.  History geeks will remember Aachen as the first German city to be liberated.  But that event was over a month of bloody days away.  Putting it all together, on September 16, 1944, Jim had gone from frying pan into fire.

You can imagine the scene—a quiet courtyard, waning Fall afternoon (1745hrs to be exact) , the gentle crunch of flat-soled shoes on cobblestones and somewhere off in the distance, the spastic crackle of rifle fire...Jim ran for cover.  It was then that adrenalin's effects, having protected Jim from the worst, began to subside, allowing the searing pain a chance to inform Jim that he'd been hurt.  Badly.

"I made my way out of the courtyard and onto a road.  A county road.  My eyes were swelling shut (from the burns) and I knew I had to get help.  But I knew the Germans were there (too).  Down the road, along a hedgerow, I was able to make out some soldiers.  They had netting in their helmets and, thought,  Americans!  Wow!"

Those Americans were from the 1st Infantry Division.  Every hear of the movie, "The Big Red One"?  The 1st had just arrived into Germany and the timing couldn't have been better.  Not only had they entered Hitler's backyard, they also had a grunt's-eye view of the show overhead.

The ground-bound eyewitnesses are why we know there were 20+ Germans versus Jim's lone P-38.  While Jim recovered in a Paris hospital, the Army and the Air Force got together and managed to get the man awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his effort.  Jim had put on a heck of a show for the infantry beneath.

Do yourself a favor and read his DSC Certificate...


The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Second Lieutenant (Air Corps) James K. Kunkle (ASN: 0-763232), United States Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-38 Fighter Airplane in the 401st Fighter Squadron, 370th Fighter Group, NINTH Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy forces on 16 September 1944, during an air mission over Aachen, Germany. On this date, while flying as rear man in a squadron on an armed reconnaissance mission, Lieutenant Kunkle noticed that his squadron was about to be surprised by a vastly superior force of enemy aircraft. Unable to summon his leader on the radio, he alone unhesitatingly pulled away from his formation and vigorously attacked the enemy, immediately destroying one of his aircraft. In so doing, Lieutenant Kunkle placed himself in a position to be attacked from the rear and above. When this attack materialized, many hits were registered on his aircraft which caught fire burning his face, neck, and hands. Despite his burning plane and the gunfire from enemy planes, Lieutenant Kunkle continued his attack against the vastly superior enemy force and succeeded in destroying a second enemy aircraft, breaking off combat only when forced to parachute to safety when his left fuel tank exploded. Second Lieutenant Kunkle's unquestionable valor in aerial combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 9th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.
General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Strategic Forces in Europe, General Orders No. 13 (1945)


In case you're wondering, the DSC is one stop below the Medal of Honor.

So, knowing that, would you have another look at Kunk's Klunk and give the poor girl a moment of silence...?

[silence]

"So what happened to Jim?!" you ask.

Good question.  After 16 weeks of hospital care, Jim tried to get back into combat but a doctor discovered additional spinal injury and took him right out of flight duty.  The war was over.  Instead, the Doc sent Jim to what was called a "Flak House" for 30 days of peace, quiet and a chance to heal.  In case you're not familiar with the term "Flak House," it was a slang name for a the kind of convalescence that only those who've experienced mortal combat can appreciate.  Jim described it as a beautiful English Manor populated by, of all people, bomber crew.

"I was a fighter pilot.  I wanted to talk about flying.  About airplanes.  About..." Jim's voice trailed for a moment.  "But the bomber crew?  They wanted none of that!"  We talked for a few more minutes on the strange blessing that being (seemingly) in-control of one's fate could be to a man.  The bomber crew had to grit and bear the random pierces of flak and the slashes of the Luftwaffe.  But the fighter pilot, though inter-dependent, was more self-reliant.  Somehow, someway, to Jim at least, that formula worked best.

"Over the years, I can't count all the great leaders and good role models I've had.  Especially in the military.  But my mother, she was my guiding light.**   And you know, I still meet people I look up to!  But I've always been, ultimately, in charge of myself.  I may be part of a team, but I am (foremost) an individual."

Jim went on to explain that opportunities abound in spite of pendulum swings of the economy, of politics, of this or that...but only to those who have the sense of personal responsibility to account for their fates.

And only to those willing to take on 1:20 odds.    After all, he didn't know what else to do.
"Kunk" signing my artwork.  Check out Jim's office decor.  And his buddy.
Now.  If you'd like to own a print of "Kunk's Klunk," signed by the boss himself, click here and scroll down until you see his P-38.

*I'm being charitable.  "Market Garden" was a dumb idea.  So dumb, it should be a lesson plan in business schools for young executives who hope to do things like start businesses, manage people, or develop new products.  It'll scare'em silly.  Don't believe me?  Read this.

*Jim's dad died while Jim was a young boy.  Jim's father had been an aviator in WWI and was a primary force in interesting the young Kunkle in all-things aviation.  A salute goes to both parents.