He shot down Messerschmitts in one-on-one duels high in the skies above the European theatre of war; he bluffed another one out of the sky with aggressive flying when his guns jammed. He survived the ordeal of captivity in German POW camps that later inspired the movie, “The Great Escape,” and he somehow lived through a forced march in the worst snowstorm of the century. This was Coronado’s Colonel Richard Kenney.
Colonel Kenney passed peacefully in his sleep, on the morning of Dec. 11, 2014, at his home in Coronado. He was 94, and the last known surviving member of Coronado High School’s Class of 1938. His was a life well lived, and now he is being honored and remembered along Coronado’s Avenue of the Heroes.
Richard F. Kenney, (Dick) was born March 2, 1920 and moved to Coronado at the age of three. He gained a reputation for being a big, athletic kid who liked to work and play with equal passion. Kenney excelled as a junior sailor throughout the late 1930s, winning numerous regattas at the Coronado Yacht Club in Star boats, scows, and the Sunbirds of the Rainbow Fleet. He attended San Diego State University in 1940-41, University of Nevada in 1968 and Sierra College in 1972.
He obtained his pilot’s license in 1940 from the Clyde Corley Flying School at Lindbergh Field. In September 1941, after a brief stint on four-stacker destroyers, he joined the Army Aviation Cadets at Cal Aero in Chino, Ca. In 1942, he was commissioned an Army Air Corps second lieutenant and assigned to a squadron at Hamilton Field just north of San Francisco. On short notice that Fall, the squadron boarded the Queen Mary in New York sailing for Ireland and the war. He flew with the 95th Fighter Squadron in Ireland and eventually deployed to fight air battles in the North Africa Campaign.
At 6’3” and 190 pounds, Lt. Kenney was a lanky twenty-three year old as he jammed himself into the tiny cockpit of the P-38 Lightning, one of the most significant aircrafts of World War II, and a veritable killing machine.
On April 28, 1943, Kenney piloted his P-38 in low (15 feet over the waters of the Mediterranean) and fast (200 mph) to make a direct hit on an enemy merchant, troop transfer ship. Maneuvering himself directly over the ship when dropping his load, the explosion, and resulting shock wave flipped his P-38 past vertical.
Disregarding his own safety, he kept his eyes on the ship long enough to watch his wingman’s bomb also explode on the doomed ship’s deck. Suddenly, the radio squawked as one of our bombers flying overhead warned Kenney of Messerschmitts dropping in on him. Kenney righted his aircraft in time for a head-on run with one of the Messerschmitts, guns blazing. Kenney won that duel as the Messerschmitt flamed and crashed into the sea.
Kenney’s bombing of the Axis merchant ship and downing of the Messerschmitt ME 109 that day resulted in his receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. An official description of his actions read like a Clark Gable movie script: “Undaunted by a solid wall of flak and machine gun fire thrown above the ship, [Kenney] attacked broadside, planted his bomb squarely amidships, and passed a few feet over the ship. The merchant vessel was left at a complete standstill belching black smoke and steam after the explosion.”
On another mission Kenney attacked a flight of six Italian transport aircraft (SM-82). He took out the rear transport, and then the next. As he took a bead on the third transport, a Messerschmitt assigned to cover the transports dropped out of the ceiling and opened fire on Kenney’s P-38. Kenney wheeled his plane around and shot down his attacker. That, including the two SM-82s, gave him a total of four confirmed kills. It was a big day as pilots go.
Later, while escorting a flight of B-25 bombers over Sardinia, Kenney and his wingman were under attack by several Messerschmitts. Kenney’s wingman took down one of the German planes, amidst a mixed portrait of planes and hot lead. Kenney’s guns jammed and his wingman had to switch gas tanks so they decided to hit the deck for home at about 400 miles an hour. The Messerschmitts had altitude in their favor, however, and weren’t ready to give up the fight.
“They were dropping down on us fast, and their bullets were exploding at maximum range just outside my canopy,” recalled Kenney. “We couldn’t outrun them so I signaled my wingman to turn back into them. He shot at one and missed, shot at another and it went down. The second plane ran for it and I had the third one in my sights but I was toothless.” Kenney’s jammed guns prevented him from scoring a fifth kill that would have given him ace status, however, and despite having no firepower of his own, Kenney saved his wingman by boldly bluffing the third enemy plane out of the air.
That action resulted in a United Press International story that hit newspapers back home. The headline read, “Coronado Flier Bluffs Enemy.” Richard Kenney complained about that fifth elusive kill until his dying day.
Two months after bluffing the German pilot out of the sky, Kenney was sent on a mission to fly in low and strafe a radar tower in Sicily that took him out of the war for the duration. His left engine was hit by surface-to-air gunfire, engulfing the plane and him in fire. Unable to reach the Mediterranean, Kenney crashed on a Sicilian farm.
He was captured by the Italians, taken to a hospital in Palermo, handed over to the Nazis and immediately transferred to Germany. Over 17 days of “interrogation,” he had a gun put to his temple, was refused medical treatment, thrown into solitary confinement and nearly starved before being transferred to Stalag Luft III, a POW camp for captured aviators. Located 90 miles southeast of Berlin in what is now Poland, he was to call Stalag Luft III home for the next two years. Kenney’s POW tag read “Stalag Luft III-1747.”
Stalag Luft III was the inspiration for the movie “The Great Escape,” throwing a light on Kenney’s misfortune that gave it, and him, celebrity status in the years to come. While he was not on the list of escaping prisoners, he worked to help make that escape possible, often times carrying dirt from the tunnels in his pant legs to be spread outside when the Germans weren’t looking; or standing night watch as the diggers burrowed underground towards their intended escape.
In January of 1945, as Russian troops closed in on Stalag Luft III, Hitler ordered all 11,000 POWs be moved to prevent their capture. He intended to use them as gambits, as his war crumbled around him. The POW’s were marched out at midnight in a blinding blizzard. The now infamous death march was 60 miles, through the worst snowstorm to hit Europe in fifty years. Dick Kenney was one of those men who marched, starving through snow and ice, in sub-zero weather.
For six days the prisoners slogged through the worst possible winter conditions. Finally the Germans packed the POW’s into small boxcars – up to 70 men were forced into the filthy cattle cars that would have been crowded at half that number, “That was the worst,” said Colonel Kenney.
“On the morning of April 29, 1945, elements of the 14th Armored Division of Patton’s 3rd Army attacked the SS troops guarding Kenney’s Stalag. Prisoners scrambled for safety. Some hugged the ground or crawled into open concrete incinerators. Bullets flew seemingly haphazardly. Finally, the American task force broke through, and the first tank entered, taking the barbed wire fence with it. The prisoners went wild. They climbed on the tanks in such numbers as to almost smother them. Pandemonium reigned. They were free!”
Dick Kenney was starving and just wanted to go home. He slipped out of the camp with an Army artillery unit and made his own way across Europe arriving at Camp Lucky Strike in France with no dog tags or uniform, but one step closer to home.
Following WWII, Kenney become an instructor pilot for aviators flying P-51s. He trained combat crews in aerial gunnery, bombing and strafing at Nellis Air Force Base in mid-1953. In search of that elusive fifth kill to qualify him as an ace, Kenney signed up to fly in the Korean War, as the squadron commander of a Saber jet outfit. The war however was all but ended.
Kenny’s work was crucial in instructing Navy fliers in the transition from prop to jet propulsion. He became one of the first Air Force flyers to become carrier qualified. Later, he was sent south of the border as an emissary of the United States Air Force, to aide the Mexican Air Force’s transition from propellers to jets. To add to his unique collection of awards and honors, he was presented a set of third-world “wings” from the Mexican Air Force as an honorary member of that allied force.
Kenney flew for the Army Air Corps/US Air Force for 27 years, logging 6,000 flight hours that covered two wars. “Flying was my life,” he often said proudly.
The media loved Dick Kenney. After World War II he seemed to be forgotten. But, in his 90s, he was featured in the San Diego Union-Tribune twice, on two TV news stations, the subject of two KPBS specials, and featured in articles of local newspapers numerous times.
Dick Kenney wrote and sent poetry in lieu of Christmas cards. Just a few years before his passing, he published his booklet, “Christmas Greetings.” Many of the poems he wrote while being held captive in Germany during WWII - where his thoughts turned daily to home, family, and the holidays. He also published his memoirs under the title, “Sailor, Soldier, Airman.”
In 2007 Kenney funded the purchase, at great expense ($14,000), of the historic 1923 Hotel del Coronado Laundry truck, and donated the vehicle to the Coronado Historical Association. He also donated five silver dollars he had recovered as a young boy from the shipwreck Monte Carlo in 1937. They are now on display at the Coronado Museum.
Kenney received his first Purple Heart from wounds received in action while flying out of North Africa, in June of 1943. Just a few years before his passing, he belatedly received a second Purple Heart for injuries incurred during the forced march, when he suffered severe frostbite on his hands and feet. That second Purple Heart arrived 68 years later.
Colonel Richard Kenney’s Avenue of Heroes Banner is displayed at the corner of Third Street and I Avenue, at the corner of the newly designated, Glenn Curtiss Park, in Coronado California, May 18, 2015.
Note: Dot Harms and C.L. Sherman contributed to this story