Decorated World War II Hero Jim Kunkle Reflects on Service, Longevity and a Lifetime of Adventure in the Skies

They call it the ‘Greatest Generation.’ An era of men and women whose grit, sacrifice and love of country shaped the future of America. We owe them an immense debt of gratitude for guiding the world toward the bright light of freedom and away from the perilous grasp of Nazism and the Tripartite Pact nations. The toll was heavy, the losses were unfathomable and yet the pride felt by those marching into battle was immeasurable. Roughly 16 million served in World War II and over 400,000 didn’t come home. While the atmosphere within the ranks was electric, invigorating and ripe with purpose, the weight of the mission was grasped fully. It was the ultimate fight. The fate of the world as we knew it was at stake.

Over 11 percent of the United States population donned a uniform and bravely supported the Allied mission in one fashion or another. One such GI was a young man with a fire in his belly for flight. Jim Kunkle developed a love of aviation as a small child in Pennsylvania, flying with his father as they would call on customers in the post-World War I era steel industry. A veteran of the war, Jim’s father died young in 1932, a result of injuries sustained in a wartime accident. Jim and his father shared a love of aviation, with the elder Kunkle having dreamt of becoming a pilot in the war. “He never really got the chance to fly,” says Jim, “but he inspired an interest in aviation for me that started before I can remember.”

Jim Kunkle received the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart and the French Legion of Honor.

The Golden Era

An only child, Jim was just 9-years-old when his father passed away. The family had been on the cusp of a move to California then, and Jim’s mother turned to him with a question that would change his life. “She asked me, ‘do you still want to go?’ I said ‘yes.’ She had never driven, but she took a few lessons, bought a Chevy and the two of us drove to California from Pennsylvania on Route 66, which was just being constructed. It was nothing but a mud hole back then,” he remembers. “She was a pistol,” he says laughing, fondly remembering the woman whose feisty spirit kept the two of them charging forward.

Jim and his mother moved to Beverly Hills. It was the golden age of aviation, and California was at the helm of innovation and enveloped in Hollywood glamour. “My mother would take me out to Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale,” remembers Jim. “That was the air terminal for Los Angeles in those days. I would work around the airport, help wash airplanes and do anything really. My only pay was at the end of the day when anyone would have enough money for gasoline. I might then get a 10- or 20-minute flight in an airplane and maybe have the controls for a few minutes.” That energy surged through the young Kunkle’s blood, and his future was solidified. He’d earn his wings no matter what it took.

Guardsman

World War II began in 1939, and 16-year-old Kunkle wanted desperately to point himself toward the cockpit and be prepared to stand when called upon. “I met one of my local heroes when I was a youngster,” he recalls. “He belonged to the Air National Guard, which was at a small military airfield at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, which was very unusual.” The man recognized Jim’s interest in aviation and suggested that he join. A senior in high school at the time, he spent a year with the Guard riding along in 1932-vintage aircraft. “I got some stick time with some really wonderful people. Most of the Guard pilots had been combat pilots in World War I. It was very interesting for someone in his teens to cut his eye teeth like that.”

With his passion for flight raging on and some time in the cockpit under his belt, Jim focused himself on the ultimate goal: to become a fighter pilot with the Army Air Corps. At that time, cadets were required to have two years of college behind them and be at least 21-years-old. Jim was just 19 and a recent high school graduate in the summer of 1940 when he was on maneuvers with the Guard as they were called to active duty. As his unit shipped out, Jim planned to bide his time by attending college, waiting for the moment he was old enough to become a flight cadet. The wait wasn’t long.

The Fighter

The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7, 1941, a day that greatly wounded the heart of America. War was declared, and America was suddenly all in, standing shoulder to shoulder with Allied forces. Restrictions soon eased and 19-year-old Kunkle was headed for both his dream of flight and for the skies above a battling Europe. “By February, they had dropped the age limit for aviation cadets from 21 to 18 and a high school education. They needed some heads,” he says plainly. “So along with about 500,000 other youngsters my age and older, I became an aviation cadet.” The allure of becoming a fighter pilot was infectious, which made for a highly competitive environment where cadets were put through a series of tests to determine their military career. “There was something like 20,000 kids, and we spent about six weeks going through tests to determine whether we’d be a pilot, navigator or a bombardier on the bombing aircraft. They’d put your name up on the board telling you what your future was going to be.” Luck, skill and experience played in his favor, and it was determined that Jim would become a pilot. His dream and the reality of where he was going were suddenly both very real.

“They asked me what my preference was — not that you were going to get it — and I said that I wanted to fly P-38s, and I wanted to go to England,” remembers Jim. He excelled through flight school and just before graduation he was able to get 10 hours as a cadet in the P-38, the same airplane that he’d worked on at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation for a short time in between the Guard and becoming at flight cadet. “That was my airplane,” he says. “It was a high-altitude fighter.” That experience was enough to solidify his destiny. He mastered P-38s while in training in Southern California, where he and others would often meet the Marine Corps pilots from Air Station, Santa Barbara for air combat maneuvers over the Santa Ynez Valley — his future home and the picturesque valley where Platinum Performance® was founded and still operates today.

Army Air Corps Pilot Jim Kunkle during World War II. Kunkle has been a Platinum Performance® client since 2007, and we are honored to tell his story.
COURTESY PHOTO

Shipping Out

After a short time training, orders were handed down and the young Jim Kunkle was headed to England to fly P-38s above the battlefields of a raging world war. “I arrived in England before D-Day and was assigned to a fighter group” he says. “There were two Air Forces in England — the 8th Air Force had the heavy bombers and the escort fighters, so everyone was slanted toward the 8th Air Force because that meant there would be more aerial combat. When I was assigned to the 9th Air Force, there was a little disappointment, but it didn’t take long to figure out that, after D-Day, we were supporting our ground troops, and they were badly in need of the support.” He saw plenty of combat, flying his first missions immediately following D-Day, one of the most revered battles in world history.

Within two days of troops landing in Normandy, the military began building airfields in France, quickly and simply cut out of farms in the French countryside very near the beachhead in Normandy. “Within two weeks, we had aircraft operating off of those airfields. Ours was cut into a beautiful farm right at Omaha Beach,” recalls Kunkle. “We were there operating for about six weeks before we moved on to Saint Lo.” From there, the squadron followed the advancing ground troops, moving forward in unison. “Through August and September, we were deeply engaged with almost every major battle as Patton and the 1st Army went across France.” It was living history, with each battle marking a step toward reclaiming Europe from the Nazis.

Battle for Aachen

“Early in September, the 1st Army attacked Aachen, which is one of the oldest German cities,” says Jim. It’s hard to imagine that the pristine countryside now known for regal horses and internationally acclaimed equestrian events was once war-torn and occupied by Hitler’s Wehrmacht unified armed forces. “On September 16, the 1st Infantry Division was attacking Aachen, and we had run out of almost everything. We were short on fuel, short on ammunition, and our supply lines were coming off of the beachhead. It was a long way from there to Eastern France and Belgium,” remembers Jim. “In the meantime, the Infantry were attacking Aachen, and we were really hurting the German ground forces. The Luftwaffe tried a new tactic where they were vectoring fighters in to attack our type of operation. Our aircraft in those days had no type of navigational radio whatsoever. If we were looking for a target area or an assigned target area, you’re concentrating on looking at the ground.” The challenge was that to pick up a spot on the ground, it was near impossible to simultaneously watch your ‘six.’ Which left fighters blind from behind and vulnerable to attack. “One of our sister groups had lost half a squadron in one engagement because of that. They had gotten hit and weren’t aware they were under attack until the Germans were amongst them. They suffered a loss of eight aircraft in one moment,” recalls Jim. “We started putting someone with some experience at the back of our squadrons with their job being to watch the back end. I drew the duty several times,” he says. “Once was in August, and sure enough, we were attacked. Around the clouds came a flight of German aircraft,” he says, recalling the approaching attack. “I spotted them and called the break.” Calling a ‘break’ signified turning into the enemy, with whoever calls the break becoming the lead plane in the attack, never taking their eyes off of the enemy. “I led the attack, and nobody followed me like they were supposed to. All of the sudden I was head-on with some German aircraft, alone. I broke into them, we had a short engagement, and I found out that German FW-190s can roll very, very quickly. I got my education,” he says chuckling

“We were deeply engaged with almost every major battle as Patton and the 1st Army went across France.”
— Jim Kunkle, Army Air Corps Pilot during World War II & Platinum Client since 2007

September 16, 1941

So many servicemen and women have a day in combat that changes the course of their lives. Some have several. For Jim Kunkle that day was September 16, 1941. “We’re up over Aachen, and sure enough, here comes two gaggles of German aircraft. We called them ‘gaggles’ because they didn’t fly a formation like we did, it was truly more of a gaggle of aircraft. They were coming in on our squadron from the rear, and our squadron was flying top cover for the other two squadrons who were dive-bombing and strafing down in Aachen. Our job was to prevent any aircraft from attacking them.” Just as before, Kunkle called the break, and just as before, he broke alone, momentarily unaware that no friendlies were on his tail. “I thought the squadron broke with me, but all of the sudden I got hit from behind. I knew I couldn’t hit both gaggles at the same time, so I picked the one on the left,” he remembers. Meanwhile, the other gaggle had swung around and began firing on him from behind. With no cover from his friends, he fought alone, outnumbered yet determined to take down as many enemy aircraft as he could with limited ammunition and very little time before the inevitable.

“Even today, I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened, it was a blur and an eternity at the same time,” he says. I got all my information later from the 1st Infantry Division on the ground, and they told me that the fight lasted six minutes.” Six minutes of air combat, alone, showed the skill and guts within this P-38 pilot. “I engaged a number of different aircraft, but the minute I would engage I’d be hit from some other angle from one of their friends,” remembers Kunkle. “I was on the tail of a German aircraft, and I was firing at them. Out of the corner of my eye I saw some flashes out on my wingtip, and they just started walking them up the wing. They walked them right into my fuel tanks.” World War II aircraft didn’t have the luxury of ejection seats, but, in the P-38 cockpit, there is a cold air vent that sits just at the pilot’s left knee. Suddenly, with shots to the fuel tanks, this cold air vent became like a blow torch, as Kunkle describes it. “I don’t remember reaching for the escape hatch, which was above my head, or for the windows. I didn’t do any of that. In a millisecond, I was falling in a cloud, and I knew the clouds were at about five thousand feet. When I came out the bottom of the cloud I was facing up,” he remembers vividly. The dogfight he had been engaged in just seconds before was over eastern Aachen, still heavily engaged in battle. Kunkle was convinced he was falling behind the German lines. “I rolled over and fell face down and watched the ground until it looked real close, then I pulled my rip cord. Apparently, I was very low because I was only in the chute for maybe a minute or two until I came down in the courtyard of a red brick building. There was a tree in the middle of the courtyard, and my chute caught on the tree, then I just hung there with my feet inches above the ground.” Before landing, and sure he was on the wrong side of the line, he retrieved his .45 caliber pistol from his shoulder holster but struggled to charge it. Unbeknownst to him, his hands had been badly burned and weren’t in working order when he attempted to ready his weapon. “I dropped the .45 before I hit the tree. I got out of chute and lost track of what was going on. I thought it was getting dark and that I had been on the ground for quite a while. What was really happening was my eyes were swelling shut because my face had also been burnt.” Kunkle somehow found his .45 in a ditch not far away as he caught site of a group of soldiers. As he readied himself for a gun battle, he thankfully noticed the netting on the helmets the soldiers wore. “I realized our guys had net on their helmets. I threw my hands up, threw my .45 over my shoulder and they picked me up. They had witnessed the whole fight.”

His memory of the day’s events is spotty, but he recalls being transported to an aid station where he met the Colonel of the Infantry regiment that had picked him up. They were directly behind the lines in what was a makeshift evacuation hospital for the wounded. From there, he was transported to a second hospital location with serious burns and most of his teeth either broken or knocked out completely from hitting the gun site that had sat just in front of him in the cockpit.

Flying On

“I got out of the hospital after six weeks and went back to my squadron,” he remembers. Fully prepared to fly again, he met with the flight surgeon upon his return. “He told me that he didn’t like the way I was walking,” recalls Kunkle. “We went into the local hospital in Belgium and the next thing you knew I had a full cast on. I had a broken back.” Six weeks post-incident, Kunkle was loaded on a Red Cross train and sent to the American hospital in Paris. “I had no more gotten in the door before this officer came up to me and said ‘Hell I know you. We picked you up.’ ” The officer’s name was Leonard Scott, of the 1st Infantry Division, 16th Regiment, Company C, and he had witnessed Kunkle’s entire engagement from start to finish. “I got a lot of information from him. We stayed together for a couple of weeks as we left Paris and were sent over to a hospital in England.” A chance encounter with Leonard Scott proved to make a significant impact on Kunkle in many ways. From Scott, he learned the details of the battle that nearly killed him, but he also gained the privilege of knowing a war hero and hearing first-hand accounts of some of the war’s most legendary battles. “Leonard Scott was an Infantry man. He had fought the whole way through North Africa, made the landings in Sicily, was very badly wounded there and received the Distinguished Service Cross,” remembers Kunkle. Upon being released from the hospital, Scott went to England and made D-Day. “When I got my Purple Heart at the hospital, Leonard Scott got his 7th cluster to the Purple Heart. That meant he had eight Purple Hearts. He was quite a fellow, and he told me quite a bit about what went on in those six minutes I was engaged. They tried to count the enemy aircraft, and they estimated that there were 20. When you shoot down an airplane and claim a victory, you have to have either a visual witness or your gun camera film,” explains Kunkle. “Well, I’m by myself with no gun camera film. I was credited with five aircraft out of that fight, and it was entered into my records. I thought that for years, but, just a few years ago, I got ahold of the actual Air Force records, and they had only confirmed two. Which was fine with me.”

Whether it was two, five or any other number, Kunkle served that day with intense focus, skill and bravery, exhibiting a level of heroism that’s both selfless and duty-bound. Like so many, he doesn’t consider himself a hero. When labeled as such, he’ll simply smile in thanks but quickly point out others’ stories that he deems more worthy than his own.

The war was won by the Allied forces and over by 1945. Kunkle returned stateside and found himself flying the very first jets ever developed as a test pilot. As the Army of Occupation continued on in Germany to help stabilize the country and aid in the beginnings of the rebuilding process, the need for air support was still apparent. “I went back to Germany in the Spring of 1946 and spent over a year based in Munich,” says Kunkle. “We traveled all over Europe and witnessed Germany amidst the deepest problems of their history. It was a very enlightening year to spend in Europe.”

Jim Kunkle and his wife Ruth.

A Legendary Life

Kunkle returned home from Germany for the second time in 1947, prepared to be relieved of active duty before being called upon one last time. His orders were to report to Sumpter, South Carolina, where the new F-84 jets were making their entrance.

Kunkle retired from active duty in 1948 and went on to work in the paper industry before becoming a builder of residential developments and then of airport facilities from Washington D.C. to Guam. He found himself moving gradually northward from Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, where he lived with his wife and two children amongst the then-rural landscape. An animal lover, Kunkle’s veterinarian was the prominent Dr. Baker. As it turns out, Dr. Baker was also a veterinarian and early mentor of Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center and Platinum Performance® founder Dr. Doug Herthel. “We met Doug around 1963 in the San Fernando Valley at Dr. Baker’s retirement party,” recalls Jim. “We moved up to the Santa Ynez Valley in 1975, and of course Doug had come up here just before that. He took care of all of our animals for years.”

At 96, Jim Kunkle has lived several full lifetimes. He’s every bit a true war hero, with an enduring passion for the air that sees him flying to this day. It’s in his blood. He’s immensely sharp, with a keen mind and monumental heart. His longevity is astounding. He credits his mother first for his good health and wit, and thanks Dr. Herthel for introducing him to the Platinum Performance® Wellness supplement in 1997, which he’s taken loyally every day for over 20 years. “I always say I owe it to my mother first,” he says. “She had more guts than Dick Tracy. She was still driving to Las Vegas in her Chevy Monte Carlo at 97-years-old. And every time she drove to Las Vegas she got a speeding ticket,” he says laughing. “She lived to be 102, and the last thing she said to me was, ‘Where’s my car?’ ”

Spend any amount of time with Jim Kunkle and it becomes abundantly clear why he and those like him are called the ‘Greatest Generation.’ He’s a walking compilation of the best of our country. A fighting spirit, a gentle heart, a love of freedom and an appreciation for the sacrifice and bold history that have gotten us where we are. A nation worthy of a man like him.

Jessie Bengoa
  • by Jessie Bengoa,
    Platinum Performance®

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