Twenty-Five

As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny*

January 1945

I spent my first two weeks of the war cooling my heels in Paris at the Chateau Rothschild after escorting cases of scotch to senior staff officers fleeing Brussels ahead of German panzers (For the preceding story see My Night in Paris). I heard about the Battle of the Bulge in daily briefings and watched it on 16mm newsreels. Each morning, I put on my uniform, ate a formal breakfast, and reported for duty.

“Orders on hold,” the Captain at the desk said. When I pressed him, he had me sorting mail. The top brass got a lot of mail, mine was held up until they knew where I’d be based.

I wrote to my wife Phyllis in the evening and toured Paris alone during the day: the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, windswept boulevards, wine in the cafes. An unwashed earthy scent hung over the city. Soldiers and sailors wandered about laughing and pointing, officers and enlisted in every sort of uniform. Parisians swept and carried rubble, fixed doors and windows, and washed red and black Nazi regalia from walls.

My fortune changed quickly. “Lieutenant Kenny, 404th Fighter Group, 508 squadron, St. Trond.” The desk Captain checked my orders, looked up, and smiled. “They’ll be real happy to see you, Lieutenant.” He wrote and circled a big red ‘25’ in grease pencil on the first page, handed me my orders with a train ticket, and pointed to the front door. “Jeep’s waiting.”

The train from Paris to St. Trond, Belgium crossed the path taken by German columns a month earlier and in June 1940, when their swift attacks led to the fall of France. Along the route, I saw broken rail ties and twisted rails, and work teams, sledgehammers and rail spikes in hand. Collapsed buildings and bridges marred the view of rolling, green hills.

A-92 at St. Trond

We passed the great bend of the Meuse River at Namur then continued on to St. Trond, a quiet town of about 15,000 people. The town featured a central square, three-spire skyline, Carmelite monastery, narrow side-alleys, and cobblestones. A jeep met me at the train station and took me directly to the base which was designated A-92.

It had belonged to Staffel 12 of NJG 1. (Night Fighter Wing One). There were three crisscrossing concrete runways and dozens of covered revetments, camouflaged by the Germans to resemble barns and blocks of homes. A few smashed planes, Ju-88’s and Me-110’s, remained on the grounds. A large brick-and-concrete hangar and three-story control tower and operations building had been restored to operating condition. Thunderbolt fighters filled the parking aprons and the area in front of the hangar. Maintenance teams climbed over them, checking bullet holes and missing pieces, revving the engines. It was late afternoon and the squadrons had recently returned.

P-47 of the 404th at St. Trond
A P-47 Thunderbolt with the 404th at St. Trond, Belgium

The jeep pulled in front of operations. I hugged my coat tight and cap down against the frosty January wind, grabbed my B-4 bag, and jumped out.

“Lieutenant Kenny?” A sergeant, standing in the doorway, shouted over the roar of a dozen radial engines. I nodded and showed him my orders. He pointed to the red ‘25’ on the front page, gave a thumbs-up, and pointed to another ‘25’, on a banner inside the operations building. “Major Garrigan—he’s 508’s commander—said to send you in as soon as you arrived. Give him a minute; he’s with Captain Shelton.”

A corporal, overhearing our conversation, went quickly to update the roster in the briefing room. He chalked LT. EDWARD KENNY in six-inch letters at the bottom of the list for 508 squadron pilots. Beside it he wrote an outsized ‘25’, underlining it twice.

Damn friendly group, I thought.

“Major’s ready for you now,” the sergeant said, waving me toward the office.

My heart leaped. I felt excited and a bit intimidated. This was a veteran outfit. 404 Group and 508 squadron had led ground attacks into Germany since D-Day. St. Trond was forward deployed to support attacks everywhere along the German border.

I walked in and saluted. The office was Spartan, old wooden desk, trashcan, two wooden chairs, a low dresser used as a filing cabinet. Garrigan returned my salute without standing and gestured to the open chair. He was the designated ‘old man’ of the squadron, though barely twenty-six.

“Good to see you, Ed. Quite a setup, huh?” He gestured around the room and out the window. “Sorry your orders got held up. Blame the Germans. Two panzer divisions passed fifty miles south of here—last week a recon unit came within twenty-five. We almost pulled out. Anyway, I wanted to welcome you to the 508. Have you looked around? Need anything? Any questions?”

“My driver brought me here first,” I said. “He pointed out the mess hall and officers’ billets as we drove in. I haven’t seen my mail for a month.”

“In good weather, a gooney bird drops off the mail each morning. I’m sure you’ll get a bag full. Anything else?” Before I could speak, Garrigan added, “We’re having a little ‘Hail and Farewell’ drink at the O-club this afternoon. Starts in a few minutes. You’re the guest of honor. If that’s all, Ops briefing’s at 0400.”

He must have seen me hesitate. “Don’t worry, Ed. On your first mission, you’ll be my deputy’s wingman. No slight to you. The Germans are on the run, but they’ve still got some wolves up there … good machines, good pilots, and a lot more flying experience than we’ve got.”

I nodded and asked. “One question.” Garrigan leaned forward. “Being twenty-five is a big deal in this squadron. I guess we’re at full strength—with twenty-five pilots, I mean?”

Garrigan smiled. “Twenty-five’s a special number for us because we’re only authorized twenty-four pilots. That means somebody gets to go home.” He stared past me. “No one’s left any squadron in the 404th for some time, not unless they were in really bad shape. Some of these guys have flown over a hundred missions, and some volunteered for extra missions, did two or three a day.” He took a breath and looked back at me. “Any more questions?”

That thought brought the war home to me, fast. “No, sir. Thank you.” I turned to leave.

“Save a drink for me, Ed. I’ll be over as soon as I wrap up.”

The party that evening was short and spirited—everyone had to fly the next morning. We had a honky-tonk piano and a hot jazz group. Some of the guys took a break off the flight line just to have a beer with twenty-five—me. Local Belgian beer, wine, cheeses, and bread arrived in a horse-drawn cart.

Some of the guys tried to teach the Belgian girls to jitterbug, but a couple nurses from the local nursing school jitterbugged better than the guys.

Toward the end of the party, I met Captain Jack Tueller of Morgan, Utah. Jack was the happiest to see me. Tomorrow his name came off the top of the roster, and mine moved from twenty-five up to twenty-four. Jack was going home to his wife and two little girls.

Beside me, Jack raised his beer and shouted, “I love you guys, and I’ll never forget you, but tomorrow, January 27, 1945, I’m going home.”

Everyone cheered and raised their glasses, and it struck me. Not 25 but 21. Tomorrow was January 27, my birthday. I would be 21 and I was going on my first combat mission.

 

* Special thanks to Andrew F. Wilson, Ex-404th Fighter Group, Ex-507th Squadron S-2, for  much of the background provided in his book, Leap Off the Combat History of the 404th Fighter Group. In Wilson’s forward he writes, “This book is designed to give those who were members of the 404th Fighter Group during the period 1943-1945 some basis of fact around which they can weave their own fairy tales of personal wartime experience.”

Better Pets

“I’m six years old today, Daddy.”

“Happy birthday, Button. After lunch we’re having a birthday party for you. All your friends are coming, and they might even bring you some presents.” Dave smiled, nodding wide-eyed.

“I remember once you told me when I was six years old I could have a puppy?” Dorothy said, rocking as she stood.

“I remember saying that if Mommy agreed you might have a puppy.” Dave chose his next words carefully. “You know there aren’t any real puppies or kitties anymore. All gone. Now we have robots. Easier to care for and better for the environment.”

“I know that.” Little Dorothy’s body wobbled as her head bobbed. “My teacher told me that at school. She said old robots need homes. When they wear out, people put them into new furry bodies and teach them to play with children, wag their tails, and lick my face, and love me, and sleep in my bed, and keep me company when I’m sad, and—”

“Yes, I think the new doggies can do all those things, even purr if you want them to. People program them for all the things you want them to do.”

Dorothy scrunched her mouth to one side and dropped her eyes. “Mommy didn’t want me to have a puppy. But I told her you promised, and she said it was okay.”

Dave put on his best frown to look upset. “Okay, Button. But when you go to the shelter, I’ll go with you. I don’t want you picking out a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner.”

Dorothy giggled. “That’s silly, Daddy. Why would I get a vacuum or hair dryer?”

Dave lifted his daughter onto his knee. “Of course, you wouldn’t do that on purpose, but you might make a mistake. Robots never die and some are very old. Long ago people made them to do just one thing, like clean floors, or wash dishes, or play games like chess. That made some people angry. They said robots should all be created equal. After that, all robots got the same brain even when they only did one thing.”

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When Dorothy rubbed her hands in worry, Dave raised his tone and lifted his arms. “Of course, it might be nice to have a doggie that cleaned instead of messed on the floors.”

Dorothy laughed, gave her father a neck hug, then looked up into his face. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t know you wanted to go to the shelter. I wanted to have my puppy here with me for my birthday party.”

“That’s okay, Button. I’m sure if Mommy went with you, everything will be wonderful.”

“Oh, it will. My doggie will have black and white fur with floppy ears, and …” She paused. “Daddy, remember when you said I could have a giraffe?”

When Aliens Tried to Help

“What ya doin’ now?” Justin asked.

“Same as eight minutes ago … making friends.” Greg’s eyes darted as his fingers skipped over his lap device.

Justin peered over Greg’s arm. “How many friends you got now?”

“A lot … five … six … seven … since morning I’ve added two thousand, two hundred and seven … eight … nine …” Greg clicked down the accept list.

Justin threw his arms out and flopped back in his chair. “Wow! You’re the most popular guy I know.”

“Don’t say guy, someone might take it the wrong way.”

“Sorry. You ever gonna meet any of your new friends?” Justin asked. Greg shook his head. “Not even the girls? Girls really go for popular guys, I hear. Makes ‘em get all … you know … like … ahh, excited.”

Greg faked a yawn. “Since when? Girls get all their fantasy characters online, avatars wayyy cooler than me. That way they get to play like they’re magical princesses and don’t even have to comb their hair.”

“I thought it was just me they didn’t like,” Justin said and grimaced.

“Been that way ever since the world got perfect. Who wants normal dudes? Too much work.” Greg shrugged, and Justine went back to clicking.

 

The galactic overseers watched the scene as they rocked in silence in the mist of the saline hearth. When the monitor darkened, Otch turned to Cot. “You see what we’re up against? That was years ago. We didn’t do anything then, and it’s gotten much worse.”

Cot did not respond and continued waving its many eyestalks in the warm, briny mist. Then it casually lifted a slark worm from the hors d’hoeuvre tray and proceeded to sip extrusion from its shell.

Otch pressed. “Tell me, Cot, how are your humans doing?”

Cot paused only an instant then returned to slark-surping.

Too direct, Otch thought. Cot was sensitive about discussing its humans. Every conversation they’d had on the topic had ended with an argument. Otch retracted its eyestalks, biding its time while Cot ate.

When the last of the slark disappeared from the tray, Otch tried again. “I’m sorry Cot, but I must persist. As you saw on the monitor, my humans are failing to thrive. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. I’ve done everything to make them happy, given them everything they’ve asked for, and yet they’re dying. Humans don’t know they’re no longer on Earth, but the problems began right after the relocation …” No response. Otch knew what Cot wanted.

“Okay, I apologize,” Ocht said. “I admit, you may have been right about the humans. And I was wrong to side against you in the relocation meeting.”

“You laughed at me,” Cot finally said, its tendrils oscillating.

“I’m sorry for that, too.”

“Then you voted to have my opinions struck from the record.”

“And that, too. But listen, Cot. Nothing is working. The new habitats are identical to the ones humans had on Earth. We just removed the obstacles and smoothed the rough edges—diseases, poor climate, shortages. We made everything perfect for them. Abundant delectable foods, lavish entertainments, rewards for every act, complete safety. We know we missed something. I’m down to a few dozen females, no males. Justin and Greg are gone. When females showed no interest in them, the males kicked around for a while then just stopped living.” Cot nodded as if this should have been expected.

“We want you back on the team,” Otch said. Cot nodded and, after a beat, Ocht asked again, “So how are your humans doing?”

“I’ve got twelve hundred and thirteen,” Cot said quietly.

“No, that’s not possible,” Ocht said, his voice rising in disbelief. “That would mean an increase. Are you saying your population has grown?” Cot nodded. “What? You’ve found some new entertainment for them … some new drug?”

“We’ve had this discussion before, and I won’t go through it again. You and the relocation team only want to hear answers that support your thinking.” When Ocht began to protest, Cot held up a dozen tendrils. “I think we’re done here. Thank you, old friend, for the most excellent slark worms.” With that, Cot bowed and slid from the room.

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On returning to its neighborhood, Cot donned the guise of a barn owl and flew out to visit its humans. They worked together to grow food, traded goods, repaired homes and various devices, talked about last night’s storm and how their children were doing in school. Boys and girls talked, sharing their dreams and plans. And everyone complained about how hard life was.

God and My Other Responsibilities

Life journeys take many paths, and they cross often. All must answer the same life questions. So though our sojourns differ, those new to the path may benefit from familiar footprints at the intersections.

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I believe it is difficult to understand those whose skill sets and concerns differ significantly from our own. That is a major reason we see things differently. Depending on the tools we possess, an obstacle for one may be an opportunity for another. If all one has is a hammer, one may never think to use a screw—or a saw. Won’t a board split if we pound it hard enough?

It has become fashionable, even prideful for some, to claim or strive for complete independence in all things. Forcing oneself to struggle in areas of lesser talent, insisting that greater effort is all that is required, keeps one from nurturing their special talent and perhaps using it to benefit others. It also keeps us from recognizing and appreciating the special talents of others. I think that recognition is important for finding partners and building teams, and an important quality for leaders to cultivate.

Someone once asked me, “What would it be like to be God, to have God-like power?” My answer was, “I have been God. My dog Freya sees me as all-knowing and all-powerful, the deliverer of all good things, immortal, and invulnerable.” I don’t let that go to my head. When I make the mistake of roughhousing with her—a 110-pound Rottweiler-Shepherd with a lot of sharp edges—she teaches me otherwise.

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I walk away bloodied, but that doesn’t shake her faith in my perfection. Many have commented on how she follows and seems to worship me. I remember my children when small behaving in much the same way. The mantle of godhood should be taken seriously but worn lightly. As with many pretenses of godhood—PhDs, certified credentials, modern breakthroughs and discoveries—I find little that is new. Discarding ancient wisdom, we rediscover what was long known and, hearing it coming from our mouths, declare it brilliant and extraordinary.

Out of curiosity—a trait I have in abundance—I have tried many things. Except for all the added mysticism, I found Yoga little different from the stretching exercises I learned for wrestling and Tai Kwan Do. The fact that they bring peace and relaxation doesn’t require an advanced degree or expensive class to appreciate.

I met with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when he toured the country—the same person John Lennon visited in India. His teachings predate “Mindfulness” and were certainly not about voiding the mind. It was all about thinking clearly. Cleeer-leee was how he pronounced it. One clears the mind to filter out the nonsense repeated and shouted at high volume, often with the intent to manipulate and sell everything from happiness to politics and used cars. These claims of new and perfect knowledge cannot stand close examination.

I believe the early Genesis story was intended as a metaphor. Eve died in the perfection of the garden and was born into the life of struggle necessary to survive and grow in an imperfect world. Like mine, her sin was curiosity, wanting to know and understand what was outside the gate. She may have been willing to pay the price for the mistakes she made.

This post was inspired by M. Talmage Moorhead whose post set me to thinking.

P-47 Final Checkout – November 1944

As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny.

My first flight in the P-47 Thunderbolt never got off the ground, and the second met with both mechanical and human failure—mine. I figured the change in flight schedule meant I was on the chopping block. The skipper wanted to check me out for himself. One of our top aces, Major Johnson had come back from the war to teach us a few things that would keep us from getting killed.

I sat for the mission brief, heart pounding, waiting as the other men got their instructions. The operations clerk chalked each name and aircraft assignment as they were called, and the pilot left for the flight line. For ten minutes, I sat alone in the quiet briefing room.

Maj. Johnson walked in in flying gear. He gave me a few functional directions: our flight call sign, start-engine time, and hand and aircraft signals. I’d fly formation with him; perfect for a flight check. We would take off individually. I was to join up on his wing after we became airborne.

With a hollow feeling that this was going to be my last P-47 flight, I hit the starter, felt the prop wash, and inhaled the metallic engine fumes. We taxied out together and lined up on the runway. Johnson gave the wind up signal to rev engines and started his takeoff roll. I followed after he was 100 feet down the runway then into the sky. He took a gentle turn to the left for me to join up on the outside. I moved into position, taking care to keep exactly 45 degrees off his nose with one wing clearance. Johnson rolled out and climbed to 20,000 feet. He made easy turns as he climbed, banking about 20 degrees. I stuck to him. We leveled out, adjusting the throttle and fuel mixture for the engine rpm and altitude. We hadn’t talked about the actual mission. I didn’t know what to expect.

Johnson took a sudden dive and turn right, then switched left and back to right. At 15,000 feet we leveled. Johnson’s sharp turns away and toward my plane gave me a feel for the Jug’s handling under pressure. I was determined to stick on his wing—he wasn’t going to shake me. I reacted to each tactic as quickly as my reflexes would respond.

P-47 Formation

He pumped his stick up and down, the signal for me to drop back in trail position. Then he accelerated into climbing turns, called chandelles, barrel rolls, and tight diving turns. Sweat beaded my face and poured down my neck. My flight suit wrung with sweat, and my breathing struggled.

Flying acrobatics in formation takes total concentration: left hand throttle adjustments, both feet working rudder pedals, right arm pulling and twisting the stick to match each maneuver precisely with instant measured pressure. Stay on your leader is the name of the game. It’s a combat simulation … keeping your foe … your leader … on target, in gun range, at all times.

We dropped to 10,000 feet, and Maj. Johnson rocked his wings for me to join back up on his wing. Once I was in position, he went into a long dive pulling up into a chandelle climb, followed by a barrel roll, and ending up five miles off the runway aligned with the entry leg to the landing pattern.

We approached the field normally, turning 360 degrees overhead and dropping into a gap in traffic on the downwind leg. Our final approach, landing, taxiing to the ramp, and parking ended the flight. I leaned into my seat. My drenched arms dropped to my side. On the way to flight ops, I grabbed a Form One maintenance sheet to log a possible magneto problem.

“Good flight, Kenny,” Maj. Johnson said as he pulled off his flying helmet. “You know, you don’t have to fly thatclose.” He winked and pointed his chin toward the Officer’s Club. “Let’s grab a cool one.”

 

The next Thunderbolt flights built our experience and skills. We did formation flying and high and low altitude navigation, sometimes called legal buzzing. Our low-level flights only got above fifty feet at takeoff and landing. This was tough because there were so few checkpoints. We flew by time and heading, scanning constantly for signs, water towers, or bridges—training I’d put to good use.

I had nearly one hunderd hours in the P-47 by the time we began working with air-to-air cameras. My instructor led our flight of two on takeoff. We were to climb to 20,000 feet and pair off to simulate combat maneuvers.

My engine hummed like a Rolex locomotive as I broke ground, pulled up the landing gear, and banked into a left turn out of traffic. The heavy rhythmic roar stopped without a cough, leaving only the sound of the wind whistling through my dead engine. It was the living nightmare of all single-engine pilots.

I reacted quickly, putting the nose down to hold air under my wings. A slip now was an immediate crash. I estimated I could probably turn up to 30 degrees left or right. My gauge read 150 mph. I had to trade that speed for a little distance.

A cornfield came up to my left, and my heart leaped—two ditches to cross and a road. I dropped my flaps and aimed for the road’s center. At the first ditch, my speed was 140, dropping quickly. I was twenty feet up as I sailed over the road and into the cornfield. I pulled the stick back to touch the tail down first. The nose came up suddenly as my plane settled in softer than I expected. The big Jug bent over cornrows as it skidded. Furiously, I shut down fuel and electrical switches as the plane came to rest, fifty feet short of a gravel road. I unbelted and dove out the cockpit in a single motion. Quick checking for broken bones and cuts, I couldn’t find even a bruise. My luck was holding.

The crash and fire truck crews raced up and circled my plane, checking and nodding as they quickly scanned the aircraft. I later heard that the drive-gear mechanism had broken, a freak accident causing sudden engine stop. My plane was back in the air in six weeks.

 

Our final training was Advanced Gunnery School at Dover Field. We learned about the focused killing power of eight, 50-caliber machine guns, which could chop a vehicle in two or leave a road lined with enemy soldiers looking like a freshly plowed field. We returned to Seymour Johnson for graduation and a final squadron fly-by and landing.

My spotty introduction to the P-47 Thunderbolt never clouded my feelings for the plane. Pilots fortunate enough to fly her brought back unbelievable tales of power and near indestructibility. The Jug dealt out and took punishment like no other fighter and had a proven facility for bringing pilots back alive. It was as loved by our pilots as it was feared by the Germans.

P-47 Training – August ‘44

As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny.

After basic and advance flying instruction in Texas, we went to Seymour Johnson Airfield in North Carolina for combattraining and qualification in the P-47 Thunderbolt, affectionately known as the “Jug”. As soon as we arrived, I headed to the flight line. I found the Jugs parked in perfect alignment, silent, imposing, no-nonsense war machines. I circled the first one, slowly taking in the plane we’d heard so much about. The huge radial engine with two circular banks of nine cylinders and a four-bladed propeller dominated the airframe. I inhaled the scent of metal, rubber, and machine oil and set my jaw, fantasizing this fantastic machine pulling me up through the clouds. I lifted my gaze and shook my head in disbelief. Awe swept over me—this was my war chariot.

P-47 Thunderbolt

Reality struck hard the next morning and filled every minute of the next six days. Our instructors repeated all the previous training for the new fighter: ground school, cockpit familiarization and blindfold checks, simulator engine starts and taxiing demonstrations. The program left little to chance. The written tests and oral questioning were the most thorough of our training—the technically advanced Thunderbolt was far more complicated than any plane we’d flown. Republic Aircraft Corporation built the Thunderbolt in Farmingdale, New York. The Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine with 2,000 horsepower made it the most powerful fighter aircraft ever built.

That radial engine presented one problem. When taxiing with the cowl cooling flaps open at low speeds, the big engine blocked visibility forward over the nose. This required taxiing pilots to make continuous “S” turns to see around the engine and keep the runway in view. The pre-flight briefing for our first solo flight stressed forward visibility, but with takeoff times staggered five minutes apart, I foresaw no problems.

I left the briefing determined, checked off and signed the maintenance form, and climbed into the pilot seat of my assigned aircraft. After one long breath, I strapped in, centered the seat parachute, and aligned the cushion above the pack.  I rechecked the switches, signaled my crew chief, and punched the starter.  Eighteen cylinders fired in rapid sequence and accelerated, bringing the Jug to life and driving the broad-bladed propeller to hurricane speed. In two seconds the engine rumble smoothed to a husky roar. I eased the control stick forward and felt the Jug pull off the line.

The prop wash swept a cool breeze through the cockpit. An open canopy was required for taxiing and taking off. I turned my plane into the line on the taxiway and waited for clearance. Students ahead of me ran up their engines and checked the left and right engine magnetos. At each green signal, one P-47 rolled off the head of the line and onto the runway and accelerated to take off. A couple planes shuddered, jerking left as the rpms kicked up to 2800 and the torque pulled them off center.

My heart pounded and breathing labored. Then my plane bumped forward, chattering and shaking. I heard a loud gnashing sound and swung my Jug about, pulling it off the propeller of another P-47 that had run up on my tail and shredded the control surfaces. My first P-47 solo flight never got off the ground.

 

The next day I felt guilty for the incident, although not my fault, and more so when I found I’d dropped to last in the checkout order. Again I started the engine smoothly and zigzagged to the line. This time, I performed the engine run up without a hitch. I waited to get the green light, lined up, locked my tail wheel, and nervously advanced the throttle to max rpm. Slowly the big warplane rolled ahead, accelerating faster then I expected. Leaning gently forward on the stick, I watched the airspeed indicator climb past 150 miles per hour then eased back.  My Jug lifted effortlessly.

Passing over the end of the runway, I pulled up the landing gear and reached back for the T-handle canopy latch. A hard pull on the T-handle slammed the canopy forward and locked it shut, which can be a tricky maneuver while keeping the plane straight and level. Swinging my arm behind my head, I snagged my elbow in the wires connecting my helmet and radio, sending them out the cockpit to be severed cleanly by the locking canopy. I was now out of communication with the tower and my instructor, but I wasn’t worried—I didn’t know it yet.

Our assignment called for six simulated landings while remaining 10,000 feet above an auxiliary field. This was to give us a feel for the Jug’s low flying and stall characteristics at an altitude high enough to recover if we screwed up. On my fourth simulated landing my landing gear wouldn’t retract. A glance to my instrument panel showed the hydraulic pressure hovering above zero. My usually cockiness drained when I realized, for the first time, that I had no communications or hydraulic pressure in an aircraft I had never landed. I reviewed emergency procedures for gear and radio. Not too bad, as long as the landing gear was down and locked, which it was, and I didn’t exceed 180 miles per hour. The radio was simpler: on approaching the field you rock your wings and watch for the green light to land. The normal approach, however, was a 360-degree turn to synchronize your landing path with other aircraft. This was tricky below 180 mph with landing gear down.

I circled the field about 1,500 feet above the traffic pattern and watched the other planes landing. When I saw a gap, I’d dive into an approach pattern rocking my wings and land. The traffic broke twenty minutes later, and I headed down. Pushing to beat the oncoming traffic, I put in too close to the runway and had to pull up and go around. I climbed back to 3,000 feet and felt good about my plane’s performance. It had the power and handled better then I expected at slow speeds.

My next approach felt good until the mobile control officer waved me off. Was I too fast? I was at the correct landing speed, 150 miles per hour. On my third attempt, I took a wider approach, lowered full flaps a mile out, and touched down in the first five hundred feet. The control officer signaled “thumbs up” as I taxied by. Back at the hangar, I logged the problems for the maintenance crew chief and headed toward squadron operations. My instructor Lt. Jim Worthy looked upset. I reviewed my experience, and he shook his head. Without speaking a word, he touched my back and walked away.

Next morning, when I saw I wasn’t scheduled on the big board, I looked for my instructor. “Lt. Worthy, sir, what’s cooking? I don’t have an assignment listed for today’s training.”

Glancing up from his clipboard, he mumbled, “Oh, yah, Kenny, today you’ll be flying with Major Johnson.”

“Yes sir.” I responded, confused. “I thought the training syllabus said we needed three P-47 solos before we flew formation.”

“The boss wants to fly with you.” This time Worthy didn’t look up.

My first reaction was excitement. Major Johnson was not just the squadron commander. In this fast war, he already had over 100 missions in the European theater and became an ace in a single day when he intercepted Junker JU-52 transports evacuating Rommel’s Afrika Korps from North Africa.

Then it dawned on me—I was being tested. This could be my last flight.

Fighter Pilot Training – 1944

As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny.

After officer candidate school at Kent State in Ohio, I went to San Antonio, Texas, for classification—the qualifying process that determined whether I would be trained as a pilot, navigator, or bombardier, and whether I’d be flying fighters, bombers, or transports. As hoped, I qualified to become a fighter pilot. Then came ground school and pre-flight training. I marched and countermarched, sabre in hand, learned Morse Code, hand-to-hand combat, and aircraft recognition.

My flight training was all in Texas: Bonham for primary training in the Fairchild PT-19; Greenville for basic training in the Vultee BT-13; and Victoria for advanced flying in the North American AT-6 Texan.

I received my wings in Victoria then began combat training in the venerable Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the plane made famous by the “Flying Tigers.” The air gunnery range was at Matagorda Island off the Texas gulf coast.

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My new wife Phyllis had followed me for an entire year, post to post, renting rooms off base. We got together whenever I got a pass, and sometimes when I didn’t. When the post commander withheld passes, usually for minor infractions, a cigarette butt, can, or candy wrapper found around the barracks, I went AWOL (away without leave). For a bottle of hooch, a tech sergeant let me hide in the trunk of his Ford then picked me up on Monday in time to make the morning muster. For Phyl and me, every re-acquaintance became a celebration and an opportunity to share stories.

She had found a room in a boarding house just off the end of the runway. One morning when I took off, I saw her hanging wash on the clothesline in the yard behind her room. I wagged my wings as I flew over, a pilot’s wave, and she waved back. After that whenever she heard a fighter plane overhead, she’d run out and wave, always getting a return wing wag. It wasn’t long before I heard comments at the morning mission briefing. Who was the cute redhead who liked all the pilots? When I told them, everyone started looking for her to get a sendoff wave and always wagged their wings back. When I saw Phyl that weekend, her first comment was, “You flew quite a bit this week.”

At Matagorda I walked guard shifts several nights a week, rifle on shoulder, up and down the beach. U-boats had sunk merchant ships off the coast, often in sight of shore, and we’d heard reports that agents and saboteurs had landed in small inflatable dinghies. Our fighter planes made tempting targets. Passwords were changed daily and were made hard to guess.

One moonless night, I heard a sound. A dolphin jumping and striking the water? Then I heard a mechanical twist and click, followed by scraping in the sand. Maybe a Mauser rifle chambering a round and a small boat dragged on shore?

“Who goes there?” I demanded. “Give the password. Advance and be recognized.” I raised my rifle and chambered a round. The sound stopped, and it was several seconds before I got a response.

“I – I forgot the password,” said a slurred voice low on the sand.

I found the tech sergeant on his belly unable to stand, a crumpled beer can in his fist.

We each training phase took me to a new base: long-range, high-altitude bomber escort, low-altitude tactical escort—where fighters join medium bombers in bombing attacks—fighter-on-fighter combat (aka dogfighting), and tactical support for ground troops. The latter included dispensing smoke in front of advancing allied troops to cover their attack and make it harder for German machine gunners to spot them.

One morning at a range outside Dover, Delaware, my smoke dispenser locked up, and I had to return to base. My landing pattern took me low over the city, and it seems all the bedding and underwear in Dover was out on the line that morning when my smoke dispenser misfired. Willy Pete (white phosphorous) is an excellent smoking agent at the correct altitude but an incendiary at low altitude. Fortunately, I was not low enough to start major fires. But my Willy Pete burned tiny holes in every sheet, pillowcase, and delicate in the city that day.

The training commandant got a call from the mayor before I pulled up to the maintenance hangar. He hauled me into his office. The bill ran to several thousands of dollars for damaged laundry, several years’ pay. He said the Army Air Force would pick it up, but I’d be walking extra tours and inspecting barracks and latrines until I completed training.

The mayor’s office compiled the bills to submit to my training commandant, and he sent a copy to me. It was in Phyl’s hand when I arrived home that weekend. I assured her it had been taken care of then explained weekend passes were going to be harder to come by.