WWII fighter pilots fulfill squadron’s promise

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

Vandenberg recently hosted the fulfillment of a promise forged in the trials of war, and made more than 70 years ago by a squadron of WWII fighter pilots, here, April 7.

Team Vandenberg facilitated a toast performed by WWII combat aviators, and retired Air Force officers, Maj. M. Eugene Johns, who also goes by the name Gene, and Col. Ralph Jenkins -- both former members of the 510th Fighter Squadron. The toast happened because of a pact made by personnel with the 510th FS that the last two surviving members of the unit, who flew combat missions during WWII, would toast from two bottles of brandy that have also survived the years. With family members of the fallen aviators determined to make this promise happen, Air Force senior officers became involved and found that McChord Field, near Seattle Washington and Vandenberg Air Force Base, were the two Air Force installations near Jenkins’ and Johns’ current residence. Johns, who currently lives in the city of Lompoc, 10 minutes from Vandenberg, and Jenkins who lives near Seattle, performed the toast over Facetime – with Johns inside Vandenberg’s Pacific Coast Club. Gladly accepting the challenge, Capt. Adam Jodice, 14th Air Force A3 staff, chief of special missions, was tasked with overseeing the logistics of the event.

“The promise of this toast began with Walter T. Dunnivan, who was a Major in our United States Air Force,” said Jodice. “During World War II, he completed 100 combat missions as a Thunderbolt fighter pilot. As a part of the 510th squadron, he flew close air support for the 1st, 3rd, and 9th Armies in Europe. He shot down 7 enemy aircraft. At the end of the war, Dunnivan and the other members of the 510th made a pact to remain in contact and hold reunions throughout the years. At one of the last reunions, the men realized they would not be able to continue this tradition much longer. At that time, the promise was made that the last two surviving members would pour a drink, and raise a glass in a final toast to the departed Airmen. Dunnivan purchased two bottles of 1945 Calvados Brandy, a favored drink of fighter pilots in the 510th. Before Dunnivan passed away a few years ago, he entrusted his family with the charge to fulfill his promise when the time comes.”

Johns and Jenkins both entered the 510th Fighter Squadron as young officers hoping to make a difference in a war that had already been raging for more than three years. Moving to various bases throughout the conflict, but ending up in Belgium by the end, the duo would fly more than 200 missions, combined, with the 510th Fighter Squadron. Joining the group after Jenkins, Johns logged his 63 missions out of the more than 200, within the last six months of WWII in Europe.

“I flew 63 missions beginning in early November 1944 and ending with the end of the war in May 1945,” recalled Johns. “The best and most productive of those missions was flown on Feb. 16, 1945. On that day, the 510th Fighter Squadron flew two, 12-ship missions and destroyed 49 locomotives.”

Jenkins, who was assigned as flight commander of 510th in 1943, rapidly ascended the ranks as multiple superior officers perished in battle.

According to his official biography, “Assignment to the 510th Squadron at Walterboro, N.C. came in November, 1943. His first duty was flight commander and he had that position when (his unit) arrived in England. Following the loss of Capt. William B. Taylor, Ralph became Squadron Operations Officer. He took command of the Squadron when Lt. Col. Bruce Parcell was shot down. He remained in that position until war’s end. After flying about 90 missions, he returned to the States in November for (Rest and Recuperation) then rejoined the squadron in early January, 1945. Ralph flew a total of 129 missions, accumulating 329 combat hours. He was the only squadron commander of the group to survive after returning home and then rejoining the unit.”

More than just the remaining survivors of a distinguished unit sharing a drink, the toast reconnected two wingmen who share a bond spawned by the difficulty of war and solidified by the camaraderie of brothers-in-arms.

In excerpts from a letter written from Johns to Jenkins in 2010, Johns writes, “Dear Ralph, It was kind of you to call about the loss of Charles (Chuck) Appel, one of our cherished fellow fighter pilots. Chuck and Clyde Kinsley, our two squadron commanders in place during your absence on (Rest and Recuperation) were both held in high esteem by us, and while you were gone, both were shot down, one to become a POW (Chuck), and Clyde, Killed In Action. So now Chuck Appel one of Tom Brokaw’s ‘Greatest Generation’ is gone. At our reunions we always form conversation circles and talk about squadron missions, our personal experiences and our loss. There is no need, incidentally, for any of us to embellish our stories, the stark truth is graphic and astonishing enough. During one of those discussions, a participant said, ‘we made a difference,’ and it is self-evident to both you and me, that we did. We made a big difference, shortened the war, saved a lot of lives on both sides of the conflict, and Chuck Appel was an important part of making that difference.”

Some of the decorations and awards Maj. Johns and Col. Jenkins received during their careers are the following:

Maj. Johns: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 6 Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 3 Battle Stars,

Col. Jenkins; Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medal with 23 Oak Leaf Clusters, French Croix De Guerre with Silver Star