James Kirkendall – Not My Day To Die

Posted on May 3, 2014

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MG Jim Kirkendall as he retired.

MG Jim Kirkendall as he retired.

Jim In His P-40

Jim In His P-40

Jim Kirkendall

Jim Kirkendall

As I have stated before, most of this blog is about the Vietnam War and Charlie Troop 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division but from time to time I would write about other things. This is one of those times.

My wife, Carol, and I were honored in December of 2013 to attend a ceremony in Washington, D.C. It was hosted by the Belgium and Luxembourg Embassies. The ceremony was to honor those men and women who served in WWII and had been award the Belgium Fouragere 1940. This time is was for Carol’s Dad, Clyde E. Roller. At this meeting of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, we were blessed to meet many True American Heroes. One of these was a Hope Kirkendall. Hope was a Surgery Nurse who was assigned to Belgium just a few days before the starting of the Battle. We told her that we would be going to Belgium this year (2014) and we planned on going to the Remembering Museum. She asked us if we would be willing to take some things there for her. Of course we said yes.

Hope’s husband, Jim Kirkendall, was a Fighter Pilot during the War. She gave us some pictures of Jim and three of his Flight suits and a pair of flight gloves to take. She had related a story to Carol about her husband. With the articles she sent us was a book: US Army Air Corp, 315th Fighter Squadron, 324th Fighter Group, World War II. Here is an abstract of that story:

It was July 1944. I was an Army Air Corp Captain and a pilot in the 324th Fighter Group, flying P-40 Warhawks from an airfield on the tip of Cape Bon, the northernmost point in Tunisia, North Africa.

On the afternoon of July 7th, I was assigned to lead a flight of P-40s which were to escort A-20 light bombers scheduled to attack Sciacca Airdome on Silicy’s south coast. It was my 23 combat mission in the war. The A-20 bombers were base on a neighboring airfield. Operational Procedures called for us to be ready in the cockpits of our fighters and to wait on the ground for the arrival of the bombers. The A20’s were to fly to our field in formation and then circle at low altitude. This would allow us to start our engines, take off and get in escort position above the bombers before proceding across the Mediterranean sea to the target in Sicily.

The first indication that things might not go well that day came when the bombers flashed into view but, instead of circling, passed directly over our airfield and continued out over the Mediterranean toward Sicily. This forced us into an expedited take-off and accelerated chase. The extreme heat and the aircraft performance required to catch up with the bombers proved too much for eight of the twelve P40’s. They fell so far behind they finally had to give up and returned to base. Only my lead flight of four fighters were able to continue the mission. But as we neared the coast of Sicily, we had maneuvered into good escort position, high above and to the left of the bombers. Then the bombers reached the Scilian coast, turned right and settled down for their bomb run on Sciacca.

Suddenly, my wing man’s voice cracked in my earphones, “Bogies at nine o’clock level.” I quickly turned my head to the left and saw over a dozen German Messerschmitt fighters closing rapidly on our flight. Over the radio I called, “Break Left,” and we turned directly towards the enemy. I fired at an oncoming Messerschmitt, simultaneously swerving to avoid hitting him head on. I could see tracer bullets lace the sky all around me and knew that the other three members of my flight were firing also. Our action broke up the German formation, and a turning, twisting melee ensued.

As the dogfights continued, I heard in my earphones the bomber leader announce, “Bombs away.” Then he advised that he was turning his flight back over the Mediterranean and heading for home base in Tunsia with all aircraft intact. I happened to be in a right turn when, suddenly, I found myself in a nearby ideal kill position behind an enemy fighter. All I needed to do was to pull the nose of my aircraft in a little tighter so as to get the Messerschmitt fully in my gun sight. In a few more seconds I would press the trigger, and there would be one less enemy aircraft in the flight. So I held the turn despite the fact that, because of the numerically superiority of the Messerschmitts, I should have been checking for enemy fighters behind me as well as ahead.

This oversight proved my undoing for, suddenly, my plane shuddered violently as machine-gun and cannon bullets from an enemy Messerschmitt that had maneuvered behind me hammered into the tail, fuselage and wings of my aircraft. Then there was a deafening explosion and a blinding flash of light as an explosive 20 MM Cannon shell detonated in the plexiglass canopy inches from my head. Hot fragments of metal and plexiglass pierced my left arm and leg; my left hand was paralyzed and pinned to the throttle as a large shell fragment struck the back of my hand.

Miraculously my face and eyes were spared. Smoke from the shell burst filled the cockpit; there was the acrid smell of explosive and the sickening odor of burning flesh. I thought for sure my time had come. Instuitively I applied full left rudder and stick; my aircraft snaprolled and went into a violent spin. I was going straight down, and the ground was coming up rapidly. But, somehow, I managed to recover just above the trees, heading in the direction of the Sicillain coast which I could see a few miles away.

I quickly took stock and noted that, in addition to the cannon shell in the canopy, other cannon shells had exploded as they struck the fuselage behind the cockpit and ahead in the engine area. There were machine-gun bullet holes in the horizontal tail surfaces and the wings. Half the canopy was gone. The aircraft controls were still functioning, but the engine was running rough and trailing an ominous stream of black smoke. But I had survived what must seemed to the enemy pilot a sure kill for him. Moreover I had recovered from a spin at low altitude, and I was still flying. With rising hopes I continued toward the coast, hoping to limp back across the 150 miles of Mediterranean Sea to home base on Camp Bon.

Then, as I crossed the coastline and went out over the sea, my hopes sank again as three Messerschmitts came into view about a mile to my right and slightly behind me, flying on a heading that would intercept my aircraft in a few miles. They had seen me and, with the condition of my plane and myself, I did not stand a chance when they attacked. As one of the enemy fighters began to move directly behind me, I made a hard turn to the right.

There upon all three enemy aircraft turned right also, then broke off and headed back toward Sicily — for whatever reason I’ll never know. So, for a third time that day, I had escaped what had seemed certain death.

I turned left again and proceeded at low altitude over the bright blue waters towards Cape Bon until I was about 40 miles off the coast of Tunisia. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion in the engine and black smoke poured out of the left side; there could be no doubt that my P-40 was destined for the “bottom of the sea. I slammed back what was left of the canopy, unfastened my seat belt and attempted to bail out the right side.

The first attempt was unsuccessful as the rush of air forced me back into the cock pit. I was dangerously close to the water, so I quickly tilted the aircraft to the left and tried the left side. Again, the rush of air hit me but this time pulled me violently out of the cock pit, with my legs striking the steel frame of the windshield.

My body slid along the side of the aircraft, and an instant later, I experienced what all pilots dread as I smashed directly into the tail of the air craft. The horizontal sections of the tail struck me in the right side. Ribs snapped and I clacked out. But for a fourth time that day fate seemed to say, “Not Yet!” Instinct and training made me pull the rip cord on my parachute although later I would have no recollection of doing so, and I regained my senses, deep in the waters of the Mediterrean.

As I bobbed to the surface, I was grasping for the breath that had been knocked out of me when I smashed into the tail of the aircraft. With each gasp, however, I was getting more sea water than air. I inflated my life vest which helped lift my head out of the water, but I still was inhaling too much water as I struggled to breathe and the white caps broke over me. I was growing weaker rapidly; I knew that I had to inflate my one-man life raft and get in it somehow if I were to survive.

The package containing the raft was trailing down in the water, fastened to my life vest by a length of webbing. I pulled the package up, opened it and inflated the raft. Getting into the raft took every ounce of energy and all the nerve I had, for I was made painfully aware of a broken ribs and, for the first time, of a broken leg, apparently suffered when striking the steel windshield frame on bailout. But I did manage to struggle into the raft, somehow. Then I lay back, looked at the blue sky and wondered for a fifth time why I was still alive.

The rest was anti-climactic. My yellow life raft and sea marker dye were spotted by pilots returning from another mission. A few hours later, a high-speed British Air Force air sea recue boat approached and lowered a net over the side. They motioned for me to come up. I held up my hands in a gesture of futility. Two men came over the side and helped me up.

I will always remember the words of one of those British air sea crewmen, He said, “Sir, you don’t look as good as a couple of dead blokes we picked up yesterday, but I guess this bloody well wasn’t your day to die.”

I flew 104 more combat missions and none were as exciting.

Jim was awarded the : Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit 4 times, Distinguished Flying Cross 3 times, Bronze Star, Air Medal, Air Force Commendation medal, Purple Heart 2 times, and the French Croix de Guerre.

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Posted in: World War II