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P-38 pilot reunited with fighter at Colorado Springs World War II museum

July 8, 2017 Updated: July 9, 2017 at 7:11 pm
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James Kunkle Sr., a 95-year-old World War II veteran, looks at a restored Lockheed P-38 Lightning at the National Museum of World War II Aviation Saturday. Kunkle flew the P-38 during the D-Day invasion in June 1944.

James Kunkle Sr. was reunited with an old war "buddy" Saturday during a visit to the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs.

Although they hadn't seen each other in at least 72 years, it felt like just yesterday to the 95-year-old World War II fighter pilot.

"It was a complicated airplane, but I loved it," said Kunkle, after seeing the museum's restored Lockheed P-38 Lightning. "Get me a day to get comfortable with it and I could fly it."

Kunkle, who flew the P-38 during the D-Day invasion in June 1944 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross later in the war, was visiting Colorado where he owns homes in Aurora and Aspen.

The stop at the museum, which restores and displays historic airplanes, was arranged by Colorado residents he had met at a D-Day anniversary gathering so he could revisit the plane he flew from the beaches of Normandy to dogfights over Germany.

Kunkle, who lives in Santa Ynez, Calif., still flies planes. He owns six planes and has been in the air between 8,000 and 10,000 hours.

Kunkle began pilot training at 19 in the Army Air Forces and went into combat at 21 with less than 100 hours of flight time in the P-38.

"I fired one gun once," Kunkle said of his pre-combat training.

On D-Day, Kunkle covered the channel between England and the beachheads on the French Coast. Allied military planners anticipated a large German air response to the invasion. It never came - the Luftwaffe had withdrawn most of its fighter to protect Germany from air raids.

"All we did was patrol the channel, it was very boring," Kunkle said. "Why the Germans didn't attack, we never did know."

Kunkle was awarded the nation's second-highest medal during a reconnaissance mission in September 1944 over Aachen. Seeing German warplanes about to ambush his squadron, Kunkle broke formation and attacked. He shot down two German Focke-Wulf 190 fighters before he was shot down.

His plane caught fire and Kunkle suffered burns to his face, hands and neck. Kunkle was able to parachute to safety and eluded capture.

Kunkle said the fight was confusing and hard to remember.

"It's really hard to say that you have a definite memory of what is going on," Kunkle said. "It's just you see one and shoot it and somebody all the sudden hits you, and you pull away, take a little bit of evasive action and hit another one."

Ashby Taylor, a retired Air Force pilot who flew missions during the Vietnam War, escorted Kunkle on his tour of the museum along with the lead docent, Phil Heacock.

"Everybody at the museum has a real special place for World War II vets," Taylor said.

Heacock said the museum gets occasional visits from World War II veterans, but few whose recall is as sharp as Kunkle's

"It's such an honor to meet someone like this who is so articulate," Heacock said. "His memory is so vivid."

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