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James Kunkle

Captain James Kunkle served as a P-38 Pilot with the 401st fighter squadron during WWII. He entered the service in 1942, completing training at Santa Ana Army Air Base in California. This base served as the west coast training center for Aviation Cadets. From here Captain Kunkle went to Tulare California.


During the Normandy invasion, Captain Kunkle and his squadron were assigned to provide air cover on the English channel from the British coastline to the Normandy beachhead. The men expected heavy opposition from the German Luftwaffe.

Following the invasion, Captain Kunkle flew missions covering the entire Normandy region during the majority of the summer of 1944. To Kunkle, “Almost every mission was a memorable one”. He took heavy flak on most of these missions. The most devastating mission he recalls is when the German 7th Army was trapped during operations during the Falasie Gap.

The Canadians and British were on the north end of the gap, with the American First Army on the south end. They were attempting a pincer movement, where Allied forces would attack the German flanks simultaneously. Captian Kunkle recalls the sight from the sky as phenomenal,  “You can't imagine seeing a retreating army”.


On one particular mission in the early afternoon, Kunklle recalls flying over enemy Flak, with an estimated 20 thousand enemy flak guns on the beaches, “It was not the place to be”. He recalls much of the German equipment being horse-drawn. The men were instructed to not hit the horses, an amazing task for planes traveling at speeds up to 400mph. 

On September 16th, 1944, Captain Kunkle and his squadron were attacking the city of Aachen, the first major German city to be attacked. The Germans had reinforced the city in an attempt to hold back the advancing Allied forces. Two squadrons were assigned to dive bomb and strafing run on the city. They were flying top cover and saw an approaching “gaggle” of enemy aircraft coming in on their squadron from the six-o'clock position. Following protocol, Kunkle led the attack on these enemy fighters as he was the one who had spotted them first.


“Once you saw the enemy, you couldn't take your eyes off them, or else you'd lose them!” recalled Kunkle. He called the break, which is a defensive tactic used in an attempt to avoid the enemies guns. Kunkle had expected the squadron to follow him in the attack, but for an unknown reason, he was left to face the enemy fighters by himself. 

An infantryman who had witnessed the dogfight would later tell Kunkle that he had faced 20-plus aircraft alone. The engagement had lasted roughly six minutes with Kunkle shooting down several German fighters. Kunkle recalled looking out at his left-wing when he noticed he was taking hits from a German 25mm cannon. An enemy fighter on Kunkle's tail had been walking his guns up Kunkle's P-38’s tail, eventually hitting his fuel tank.

Kunle does not recall reaching for the emergency exit handle, which would blow his canopy off. The next thing he can remember is falling into a cloud. When he came out of the cloud he realized he was facing upwards. He rotated his body and waited as long as he could to pull his parachute's rip cord, as he was over enemy territory. Within a few seconds, he was in his “chute” and Kunkle attempted o ready his 45-caliber pistol. While attempting to charge the 45 pistol and load a round into the chamber, he realized his hands had been seriously burned and could no longer hold the pistol, dropping the gun.

When Captain Kunkle landed he had difficulty seeing his surroundings. He came upon a hedgerow when he saw the silhouettes of soldiers. He assumed these to be Gemrnas and did his best to avoid them. “I didn't want to get into a gunfight with a pistol” recalls Kuuckle. As he got closer, he realized that they had nets on their helmets, which was standard among American Troops during this time. Upon this realization, these troops did in fact turn out to be Americans from the 1st infantry division, 16th infantry regiment. These men picked the wounded Kunkle up after having witnessed the entire firefight.

Kunkle was taken to the hospital with burns across his body. This is what caused him to have trouble seeing when he first landed. His face had suffered serious burns and forced his eyes to swell shut. From the hospital, he was sent by train to Paris. When he arrived at the Hospital in Paris, he was approached by an Infantry Lieutenant who said “hell I know you, we picked you up!”. It turned out that the Lieutenant had been hit the day after rescuing Kunkle. It was from this Lieutenant that Kunkle would find out the full story of what he had been through the day of his dog fight.

 It was in this hospital that Kunkle would be presented with his purple heart. The infantry Lieutenant who had rescued him (Leonard Scott from Oregon?) received his seventh cluster on his own purple heart.

When he returned to his squadron, Kunkle requested to be placed back on flying duty but their flight surgeon did not approve due to Kunkle's injuries. He had noticed Kunkle was walking strangely and sent him to receive ex-rays of his back. “The next thing I knew I had casts all over my body!” recalled Kunkle.

Kunkle would stay on active duty until 1948 getting the opportunity to fly jets. He currently resides in Califonia where he still has a passion for aviation.



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