On Veterans Day, Jim Kunkle Sr. had the thrill of participating in a prestigious ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery honoring those who have defended our country in the military services. His fellow Santa Ynez Valley resident, actress Bo Derek, also took part as mistress of ceremonies, introducing Vice President Dick Cheney, the guest speaker. However, Kunkle and other veterans are veterans every day – and he is a certified hero from World War II who’s still flying a plane today.

He is a member of the Legion of Valor of the United States of America, which is a distinguished group of war heroes who have received awards for extraordinary valor in action. “The Legion of Valor sends speakers to schools, to help promote patriotism. I invite readers to go to the Web site LegionofValor.com to find some really inspiring information. The Legion of Valor also has a fine museum in Fresno,” Kunkle said.

The Legion of Valor was initiated in April 1890 in Washington, D.C., for soldiers who had received Medal of Honor. It now includes recipients of the Army Distinguished Service Cross, Navy men and Marines who received the Navy Cross, the Air Force Medal of Honor, and the Air Force Cross.

Since 1957, the Legion of Valor has issued two new awards: the Silver Cross for Heroism and a Bronze Cross for achievement. These are awarded to heroes in time of peace. They have been presented to airline pilots who overcame hijackers, individuals who rescued others at great risk to their own safety, and various citizens performing outstanding acts of bravery.

The Bronze Cross of Achievement goes to cadets of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and college-level cadets of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, who have demonstrated excellence in military, scholastic and civic affairs.

Kunkle now leads an active life here in the Valley and he’s still flying. His son, Jim Kunkle Jr., is president of the Santa Ynez Valley Airport Association. The younger Kunkle also has been active at the Santa Maria Public Airport, where he operates Central Coast Jet Center.

Here’s the story of how Kunkle Sr. became one of our American heroes:

During WWII, Army Air Corps Second Lieutenant Kunkle was flying bombing missions in his P-38 fighter across the English Channel. On June 6, 1944, from his base in Andover, England, he took part in the great D-Day invasion. Then, on Sept. 16 of that year, his 401 squadron of fighter planes was assigned to undertake the first major operation in Germany, not far from the Belgian border.

It was near Aachen, where U.S. Army ground troops needed help. Three U.S. air squadrons were assigned, and two went in low to hit ground targets, while Kunkle’s squadron stayed above to intercept any approaching German planes.

When he saw two groups of German fighter planes approaching, he radioed their location to his squadron and immediately engaged an enemy F.W. 190 fighter plane in combat. The only problem was, the radio message didn’t get through to his squadron. Kunkle found that he was fighting a group of 20 German fighter planes alone.

The remainder of his squadron had been engaged by another group of Nazi planes. After knocking out their lead fighter, Kunkle continued in a ferocious dog-fight. “I remember being so close on the tail of an enemy fighter that it looked like my machine guns were wrapped around his tail, but his friend was on my tail,” Kunkle recalls. “I was hit on my left wing and he just walked ‘em right up my wing. I was sitting between two fuel tanks which caught on fire. Flames shot through the air and the plane blew up.”

Military records show that Lt. Kunkle had continued attacking enemy aircraft, although his plane had been hit several times and his instrument panel was gone, he was trailing smoke, and his hydraulic tank was on fire. “It seemed like an eternity that I was involved with those German planes, but our ground troops below later told me it was only six minutes,” Kunkle said.

Somehow, after the explosion he parachuted safely through enemy gunfire and landed in a tree in an abandoned courtyard near Stolberg, Germany. He made his way down the road, hoping to find our troops, when a U.S. search patrol picked him up. The excited soldiers told him that he had knocked down five German fighter planes before being shot down. They took him to the hospital tents where doctors informed him that he had third-degree burns on his hands and face and a broken back, but this tough guy fully recovered.

Lt. James Kunkle was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy near Aachen, Germany, on Sept. 16, 1944. He also received the Air Medal of Honor with eight Oak Leaf clusters as well as a Purple Heart. The Belgian government awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Fourrager Award.

“When we were fighting in World War II, we certainly believed in what we were doing. Our country had been attacked, and duty, honor and country were not just words,” he said. “It was certainly more than just a job to do. I lost a number of friends in combat. But it was also a thrill for a 20-year-old to be able to fly a wonderful aircraft,” he said. “That thrill has carried on, and my son and grandson love flying too.”

December 31, 2008