The Final Flight of David R. Kingsley

  • Published
  • By By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142 Fighter Wing

What is valor?  Where does it come from in times of crisis that enables some people to serve “above and beyond the call of duty?”  There are many worthy examples of valor and sacrifice to ponder as we commemorate the fallen of our nation on this Memorial Day.  And a flier from Portland, Oregon, David R Kingsley, is one of those whom we remember on this sacred day.

David Richard Kingsley was born in Portland, Oregon, on June 27, 1918, while the First World War still raged.  Of note, this year marks the centennial of his birth.  He was ten when his father, a Portland policeman, was killed in an auto accident.  At the time his mother was pregnant with the family’s ninth child, and young David stepped up to help his mom in a difficult time. 

Times got harder in 1936 when his mother was stricken with cancer.  When David’s older brother joined the Navy to help furnish the family enough income to survive, David took on a fatherly role for his younger siblings, ensuring they were well taken care of just as he had helped his bed-ridden mother in her three-year battle against cancer.  As his mom battled the disease, she inspired her children.  David’s sister Phyllis remembered that “…She taught us to love each other, take care of each other, and take care of anyone in need.”  Her example took root in David’s character as evidenced by events to follow.  After his mother passed away in 1939 David, 18 by then, continued to look after his siblings even though they were placed in various foster homes.

David found work as a Portland firefighter before the attack on Hawaii brought the US into World War II.  Eager to serve our nation he joined the Army Air Corps in April, 1942 as an aviation cadet.  Although he didn’t complete pilot training he successfully completed navigator/bombardier training and received his commission as a Second Lieutenant (2d Lt.) in July, 1943.  He joined his B-17 combat crew in Florida for training in September, 1943 and deployed with them, the Anderson crew, overseas in March, 1944, joining the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy) at Amendola, Italy. 

In the next two months he and his crew completed 20 combat missions.  On June 23, 1944, the Fifteenth Air Force then put up what was its largest mission to date with the various Romanian oil fields and refineries around Ploiesti as the primary target for 761 B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers.  Ploiesti generated about one-third of Nazi Germany’s oil and was thus a vital resource.  As such it was heavily defended area with abundant anti-aircraft artillery, fighter planes, barrage balloons with explosives, smoke generators to obscure visual acquisition and even decoy facilities to distract bombers.  For many Allied aircrews it was the toughest target.

Kingsley and crew were tasked to attack the Dacia Oil Refinery.  As their usual aircraft, nicknamed “Sand Man,” was out of action for repairs, the crew drew a replacement aircraft, a B-17F that had been in combat since August, 1943, first with the 301st Bomb Group and then (December, 1943) with the 97th Bomb Group, a distinguished unit which had earlier flown the first strategic bomber mission from England in August of 1942 before transfer to the Mediterranean theater of operations.

The situation on June 23rd 1944 for the Anderson crew of the 341st Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group, aboard B-17F-35-VE, serial number 42-5951, nicknamed “O Pissonya” was dire, to say the least. 

The infamous Ploiesti flak winged their Flying Fortress, knocking out an engine which slowed it down coming over the target, causing its loss in altitude as the B-17 faltered and fell farther behind the formation.  But still they continued and dropped their bombs.

Then it was the ME-109 fighters pressing in after the flak let up, with their 20mm cannons and machine guns blazing.  The valiant heavy bomber crew fought back, knocking down a couple of their tormenters but the nimble fighters were able to inflict more damage, taking out another engine and wounding a crew member.

In the battle in the skies over Romania, the enemy fighters wounded the tail gunner, peppering his right arm, shoulder, head and parachute with shell fragments; he then crawled forward to where the waist gunners were at.  They helped as best they could while still looking out for fighters but could not stem his bleeding and soon called Lt. Kingsley to help.  With his primary job on the mission completed, Lt. Kingsley moved aft on the B-17 from the nose section, past the pilots and top turret gunner to waist gunner area and then dragged the wounded tail gunner, Mike Sullivan, forward to the radio room and there tended to his wounds.

By now “O Pissonya” was a shambles with control surfaces damaged, some engines knocked out, and a wounded gunner.  After escaping the hellish defenses of Ploiesti, they now crossed from Romania into Bulgaria.  But their ordeal continued as they were hit by a mix of eight German and Bulgarian ME-109 fighter aircraft. The ball turret gunner was wounded and clambered up out of his turret and proceeded to the radio room where Kingsley also helped him.

When the new waves of fighter attacks damaged a third engine, pilot Anderson knew the aircraft could not fly much longer and made the decision to get the crew out.  He lowered the landing gear of the ship, a signal to the enemy fighters that it fight no more, and then sounded the bail out alarm.  Four crew members, waist gunners, ball turret gunner and radioman, bailed out of the entry door in the waist section, pilot, co-pilot and navigator out the escape hatch in the bottom of the bomber’s nose, while the flight engineer jumped out through the bomb bay past the opened doors. 

In the radio room, Kingsley realized the wounded Sullivan urgently needed a good parachute and without hesitation, unstrapped his own and put it on Sullivan, then helped the wounded gunner who was too weak to bail out unaided and helped him exit the plane through the bomb bay doors.  Tail gunner Sullivan later remembered: "David then took me in his arms and struggled to the bomb bay, where he told me to keep my hand on the rip cord and said to pull it when I was clear of the ship…Then he told me to bail out. I watched the ground go by for a few seconds and then I jumped. I looked at Dave the look he had on his face was firm and solemn. He must have known what was coming because there was no fear in his eyes at all. That was the last time I saw....Dave standing in the bomb bay."

In the Bible Jesus said that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.“ (John 15:13).  David Kingsley lived that way, for his family, crew, country and Maker, and he died that way on June 23, 1944. 

In a further tragedy that June day, the mortally wounded B-17, by now out of control, departed from any controlled flight and plunged to the ground.  A Bulgarian family was working in the vineyards below.  They sighted the bomber approaching as the crew bailed out and the aircraft passed over them, only to reverse course back towards them and fall earthward where they were.  Todora Douraliiska (38 years old), her young son Dimitar (9 or 10), infant daughter Lalka (6 months) and four other extended family members, Chonna (19), Mina (16), Nona (19), and Denko (6) were killed as the hapless bomber crashed and exploded.

An order awarding Lt Kingsley the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor was issued on April 9, 1945.  It was the 110th such award of this medal in World War II and the last authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt.

On Friday, May 4, 1945, scant days before Victory in Europe Day, Lieutenant David R. Kingsley’s brother, US Navy Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Thomas   Kingsley, stood in for him at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Portland, the Kingsley family’s church, during funeral services to receive his brother’s Medal of Honor, presented to him by Maj Gen Ralph P. Cousins.  It was only the second time ever a Medal of Honor award ceremony had taken place in a church.  The citation read as follows:

KINGSLEY, DAVID R. (Air Mission) 

Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 97th Bombardment Group, 15th Air Force. Place and date: Ploesti Raid, Rumania, 23 June 1944. Entered service at. Portland, Oregon. Birth: Oregon. G.O. No.: 26, 9 April 1945. 

Citation:  For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, 23 June 1944 near Ploesti, Rumania, while flying as bombardier of a B-17 type aircraft.  On the bomb run 2d Lt. Kingsley's aircraft was severely damaged by intense flak and forced to drop out of formation but the pilot proceeded over the target and 2d Lt. Kingsley successfully dropped his bombs, causing severe damage to vital installations. The damaged aircraft, forced to lose altitude and to lag behind the formation, was aggressively attacked by 3 ME-109 aircraft, causing more damage to the aircraft and severely wounding the tail gunner in the upper arm. The radio operator and engineer notified 2d Lt. Kingsley that the tail gunner had been wounded and that assistance was needed to check the bleeding. 2d Lt. Kingsley made his way back to the radio room, skillfully applied first aid to the wound, and succeeded in checking the bleeding. The tail gunner's parachute harness and heavy clothes were removed and he was covered with blankets, making him as comfortable as possible. Eight ME-109 aircraft again aggressively attacked 2d Lt. Kingsley's aircraft and the ball turret gunner was wounded by 20-mm. shell fragments. He went forward to the radio room to have 2d Lt. Kingsley administer first aid. A few minutes later when the pilot gave the order to prepare to bail out, 2d Lt. Kingsley immediately began to assist the wounded gunners in putting on their parachute harness. In the confusion the tail gunner's harness, believed to have been damaged, could not be located in the bundle of blankets and flying clothes which had been removed from the wounded men. With utter disregard for his own means of escape, 2d Lt. Kingsley unhesitatingly removed his parachute harness and adjusted it to the wounded tail gunner. Due to the extensive damage caused by the accurate and concentrated 20-mm. fire by the enemy aircraft the pilot gave the order to bail out, as it appeared that the aircraft would disintegrate at any moment. 2d Lt. Kingsley aided the wounded men in bailing out and when last seen by the crewmembers he was standing on the bomb bay catwalk. The aircraft continued to fly on automatic pilot for a short distance, then crashed and burned. His body was later found in the wreckage. 2d Lt. Kingsley by his gallant heroic action was directly responsible for saving the life of the wounded gunner.

The next day, May 10, 1945, the City of Portland issued Resolution 22601 giving honor to the name of David R, Kingsley in the files and records of the City of Portland.  The resolution stated that his “…inherent desire to save the life of another…” was from his training in church and the Portland Bureau of Fire.

After the war, Lt. Kingsley’s body was exhumed from his Bulgarian grave, repatriated and reburied at Arlington National Cemetery in mid-1949.  He was not forgotten in the years since then, however, as will be seen.

In 1949, a US Army base in Bavaria, Germany, Hof Kaserne, was officially renamed as Kingsley Barracks, per General Order #51, HQ European Command, dated 2 June 1949.  It was a US facility also used by USAF units from 1948 into 1975 before reversion back to then West Germany.

In 1957, Klamath Falls Municipal Airport in Oregon was named Kingsley Field in his honor when the USAF established an operational base there.  The USAF left in 1978, but the Oregon ANG began use of the base in 1980 and has remained ever since.

On October 23, 2004, Kingsley family members and Oregon National Guard personnel visited Bulgaria for the dedication of a monument to Lt. Kingsley and the Bulgarian Douraliiska family in Suhozem about two miles from the crash site, paying their respects to the sacrifice all made in the war to free Europe from fascism.  And more, the dedication symbolically celebrated a new partnership after Bulgaria joined the NATO alliance in June, 2004. 

More recently, Ms. Harriet Zalabak, David Kingsley’s fiancée during the war, visited the Kingsley memorial at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls in 2012.  “No one who knew him was surprised at what he did,” she said during her visit to lovingly honor the memory of her heroic fiancé.  She last saw him as he boarded a troop train in 1943.

Even today, as this remembrance is written, Portland Airmen ply the European skies where David Kingsley once flew, as the 123rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron and personnel are deployed to Graf Ignatievo Air Base near Plovdiv, Bulgaria.  The base is about a 20 minute drive from Suhozem and the monument.

May the example David Kingsley gave us of service and selfless sacrifice inspire all Airmen today.  And on this Memorial Day may citizens and service members alike know of his ultimate sacrifice for our freedom given in the war-torn skies over Europe in the Second World War.