Pearl Harbor: Help from the skies

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 7, 2001

NATCHEZ – It was not unlike any other leave. Not yet.

Bob Kuehnle and a friend sat in Kuehnle’s home, eating dinner on leave from the Meridian base where they were stationed.

The date is easy enough to remember – &uot;a date which will live in infamy&uot; – Dec. 7, 1941.

Email newsletter signup

&uot;We immediately packed up, got in the car and drove back to the base,&uot; Kuehnle said of hearing the news.

There was little time for the then second lieutenant to grasp the significance of what was going on.

&uot;Everyone else was going crazy, handing out gas masks and all that foolishness,&uot; he said. &uot;But at the base, we didn’t really think that Japan was going to come and bomb Key Field. We were just trying to do our thing to get ready for whatever was coming.&uot;

The first line of defense

Within a week, Kuehnle and his squadron of fighter pilots were headed to California. From there, they were transported to New England to pick up P-39 jets.

&uot;They were as old fashioned as you could get, so old fashioned that if you got hit and had to bail out, then you pulled a lever and your seat slid back into the fuselage where you had to open a trap door and jump from the side,&uot; he said.

Nonetheless, the pilots flew their new P-39 fighters back to the California base, from where they set sail into the Pacific.

&uot;We were on some old Great Lake iron steamers,&uot; Kuehnle said of his ocean transport, which were used on the Great Lakes to ship iron ore from mines to refineries.

The old ships were basically a big hull with railroad tracks in the bottom where railroad cars full of minerals were loaded, Kuehnle said. But for military purposes, the steamers held the P-39s below deck.

&uot;You could have sunk one of those (steamers) with a .22,&uot; he said.

For the next two months, Kuehnle and his squad were stationed at Christmas Island, just south of Hawaii, where they were providing protection and advanced warning for future Japanese attacks.

&uot;We were there for maybe two months before we shipped out to New Hebrides near Fiji,&uot; he said. &uot;While we were there, we trained in the jets and got into the real nitty gritty of fighter jet combat.&uot;

On the wings of angels

It was enough already that the steamer that had transported him on his initial voyage into the Pacific was nothing but &uot;a large, iron hull.&uot;

Neither was confidence inspired by the P-39, which was bulky and hard to maneuver and much slower than the Japanese Zeros he would have to face in combat.

But then, there was the water.

&uot;I applied to the Army Air Corps because I didn’t want to fly over water,&uot; he said. &uot;And there I was, flying over water, with no navigational systems, no less.&uot;

That was another drawback to the P-39 fighters. On their own, there was no way to judge where the pilot was, where he was going or even where he was coming from. In the middle of the Pacific, that made long flights impossible.

Nonetheless, orders had been given, and Kuehnle’s squad was to report to Guadalcanal, the site of the first major U.S. offensive in the Pacific theater. An offensive, that ultimately, would end in a U.S. victory.

&uot;Japan was controlling that area at the time, and we knew that we had to hold it or else Australia and New Zealand would be dead meat,&uot; Kuehnle said.

But there was still the part of getting there from Christmas Island to Guadalcanal.

&uot;We were guided there by Navy search planes, PBYs. We flew on their wings all the way there,&uot; he said. &uot;If one of us had gotten separated, then that would have been the end of us. There would have been no way for us to get our bearings and find land, not in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.&uot;

No one was lost on that flight. The casualties were yet to come.

Resounding ‘thuds’

Once there, Kuehnle and his squad joined a Marine fighter squadron, including ace Joe Foss, who would one day become governor of South Dakota.

The first problem to overcome was simply figuring out what to do.

&uot;The P-39s were not good fighter planes. No one could really dog fight with the Japanese Zeros. They were lighter, could turn inside of other planes easier and were faster. It was impossible,&uot; he said.

Japanese ships that were sent down &uot;the slip&uot; became targets of the P-39s, which pilots found made excellent dive-bombers. And while such runs were critical, a more pressing need was found on the beaches inland, where U.S. ground troops were finding great difficulty with the Japanese.

&uot;Japanese soldiers would dig in under palm trees and hide. As our troops would come by, the Japanese would let them pass. Once our guys were past, the Japanese would come out of their holes and shoot (the U.S. troops) up from the rear,&uot; Kuehnle said.

Air protection was definitely needed by the U.S. ground troops, but hitting a two-foot hole with a bomb was not an easy task.

&uot;We just couldn’t do it. Nothing was that precise.&uot;

So, the pilots improvised.

&uot;We went to the Navy guys and got some depth charges they use on battle ships. We rigged them up so they would detonate a few feet from the ground,&uot; Kuehnle said.

The result: resounding, destructive &uot;thuds&uot; that cleared the way for U.S. troops.

&uot;When those depth charges exploded, it would crush the Japanese in their holes, just like it would a submarine if it was shot from a battleship.&uot;

Better than a poker face

In June 1942, the Japanese sent the majority of their fighter planes to Kahilli Air Base in Bougainvillea, the northernmost island of the Solomon Islands, a few hundred miles from Guadalcanal where Kuehnle was stationed.

&uot;We were outnumbered something like 50 planes to one. And these guys the Japanese had were good fighter pilots. They had been fighting before this in China, so they knew what they were doing.&uot;

U.S. pilots had been reinforced by surviving fighters from the U.S.S. Hornet, which had been sunk by Japanese fire.

Among the new fighters at Guadalcanal was Lt. Cmdr. Hatch. It was his genius that helped the U.S. troops survive the coming fights.

&uot;He taught us how to use fighter planes in twosomes. We would weave back and forth with each other. It enabled each of our pilots to cover the tail of our buddy,&uot; Kuehnle said. &uot;We got pretty good at it.&uot;

So good, in fact, that Japanese fighters would not engage them when they began to weave in such a manner.

&uot;The Japanese were scared of it. If they saw us weaving, they would run away,&uot; he said.

Such a tactic came in handy during long runs.

&uot;When we would be fighting and run out of ammunition, we would have to run home. The Japanese were too fast for us just to outrun, so if they had followed us, then we would have been slaughtered,&uot; Kuehnle said.

To make it back, Kuehnle and other pilots would &uot;swivel back and forth in groups of two,&uot; making their way back to their base.

&uot;We would bluff them all the way back to Guadalcanal, flying the whole way completely out of ammo,&uot; he said.

Heads we win, tails they lose

In 1943, the Navy broke the Japanese military code and intercepted a message that Yamamoto, the Japanese commander in the Pacific, was to make an inspection of Bougainvillea.

&uot;Our plan was to time it just right where we got there when he did so we could ambush him,&uot; Kuehnle said.

Such a feat was a long shot, at best, but the U.S. was determined.

&uot;The timing of the whole thing was crucial. If we were spotted on the way up, or if they saw us when we were flying to the base, then they could get word to Yamamoto, and he would be diverted,&uot; Kuehnle said.

Yamamoto was coming from Truk, the Japanese headquarters in New Guinea. U.S. troops sent planes up along the coast toward the Kahilli Air Base to a point from where the ambush was to launch.

&uot;We sent six planes on that run,&uot; Kuehnle said. &uot;We all flipped coins to see who would go.&uot;

Kuehnle didn’t get to make the run, but he remembers all that transpired.

&uot;It was just crazy to think that we were going to pull this off, but we did it. We got to him,&uot; he said.

Tom Lanphier is credited with the remarkable feat, coming up on Yamamoto’s plane just as it was preparing to land at Kahilli.

&uot;He came over just as Yamamoto did, and Lanphier blew him out of the sky,&uot; Kuehnle said.

Racing against Lady Luck

Of course, great success comes with a price. The job Kuehnle and other fighter pilots faced in the Pacific was not an easy one.

&uot;We were under constant fire. The Japanese were up in the hills above where we were stationed, and they would roll out 105mm Hollisters and fire at us,&uot; Kuehnle said. &uot;It’s hectic to have cannons fire at you when trying to land and take off.&uot;

Japanese fighters also used tactics to play on the nerves of the U.S. pilots.

&uot;They would fly over and bomb us with old bottles, which incidentally sound just like a bomb when they are falling,&uot; Kuehnle said. &uot;They would do this all night to keep us awake. And then, every now and then, they would drop a real bomb. We couldn’t get any sleep.&uot;

The general rule for pilots was that they fly 50 missions and then, if they survived, they got to return to the U.S. to instruct new pilots coming up.

&uot;Things don’t always work out like they are supposed to, though. I stayed a lot longer than that,&uot; Kuehnle said.

By the end of his time at Guadalcanal, Kuehnle had flown 112 missions.

&uot;It’s hard on the nerves to fly that long, especially when you start thinking that your luck is running out,&uot; he said.

The long road home

Aug. 14, 1945. V-J Day.

&uot;I was at Peterson (Air Field in Colorado) the day the Japanese surrendered,&uot; Kuehnle said. &uot;We were all very excited to hear the news, but to be honest, I don’t remember a huge celebration.&uot;

Soon after, Kuehnle was discharged, and he started his long journey home.

&uot;I bought a Model T Ford and drove it from Colorado to Natchez, and I tell you, it was almost more of an adventure than the war,&uot; he said.

His most vivid memory of the trip home was riding through the Texas panhandle, which was &uot;nothing but desert back then.&uot;

Soon after Kuehnle arrived in Natchez, he fell in love.

&uot;It was really the first big thing I did, getting married,&uot; he said.

Kuehnle married the former Helen Louise Jenkins, a native of Natchez who volunteered for the Red Cross in New York and Miami Beach during World War II.

&uot;She was beautiful, the love of my life,&uot; Kuehnle said.

The two had known each other since high school, but had never dated until after the war.

&uot;After we were married, we moved to New York and I became the editor of a magazine,&uot; Kuehnle said. He was a natural fit for the publication, &uot;Wings,&uot; a magazine focusing on stories of fighter pilots during the war.

Kuehnle spent nearly two years in New York.

&uot;When my wife got pregnant, she moved back,&uot; he said. &uot;When my son was born, I returned home to Natchez.&uot;

Together, they had two children and were married 47 years. In 1992, Helen Louise Jenkins Kuehnle died.