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.
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.