Charles B. Kenning – Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force

WWII pilot from Pittsford to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery

By Mark Hare, Senior Editor
Courtesy of the Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle
March 23, 2009On December 12, 1942, Charles B. Kenning, 18, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Less than two years later, having completed his training as a B-24 Liberator pilot, 2nd Lt. Kenning was off to Europe, where he would fly 23 successful combat missions before being shot down and taken prisoner on the 24th, over Magdeburg, on the Elbe River.

That was March 3, 1945.

Colonel Kenning, who died on November 2, 2008, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday following a full military funeral.

It will be a fitting tribute. After a funeral Mass at the Old Post Chapel, a horse-drawn caisson will carry his remains to the gravesite, accompanied by an Air Force Honor Guard. At the grave site, a firing party will fire a three-volley salute as Air Force jets, in “the missing man” formation, fly over the site.

“He certainly paid his dues,” says his widow, Carol Murphy Kenning of Pittsford. “You forget how young they were,” she says looking at a boyish photo of Mr. Kenning taken shortly after his enlistment. “Chuck knew boys who could fly a plane but couldn't drive a car.”

Born in Rochester on February 22, 1924, Kenning graduated from Monroe High School, and after the war, from St. Bonaventure University in Olean, Cattaraugus County. He earned a law degree at Georgetown University in 1951. He worked 46 years as a lawyer in general practice (he also specialized in trial and corporate law) in downtown Rochester, most of that time from an office in the Times Square Building.

Mr. Kenning loved cars and collected them, says his son, C. Brian Kenning of Reston, Virginia.

“He collected classic convertibles, muscle cars,” says the son. He had a 1961 Ford Thunderbird, a 1966 Oldsmobile 442, a 1966 Lincoln “suicide” door convertible and several others. Brian Kenning jokes that he “spent most of my life getting rid of them” — selling them to enthusiastic collectors.

Mr. Kenning also owned a 1969 40-foot Chris-Craft Roamer, named Adjournment. “He said the boat reminded him of his bomber,” his son says, “(with) the roaring 427 Ford Cobra motors. He had a tendency to take it out and cross Lake Ontario in very severe weather, including 12-foot swells one time. He seemed to like the intensity as though he was on a war mission.”

He was a member of the Rochester Yacht Club and the Geriatric Pilots Association, a group of World War II pilots who often did presentations in Rochester-area schools.

The Kenning family traces its Rochester roots to 1832 when Theodore Joseph Kenning emigrated from Hanover, Germany. The Kennings are considered a “pioneer family” since they settled in Rochester before the city was formally incorporated in 1834. Mr. Kenning's grandfather, also Theodore, owned a grocery on East Main Street in a building that bore the family name. Colonel Kenning, whose family lived on Dartmouth Street in southeast Rochester, was 10 years older than the former Carol Murphy, whose family lived on Oxford Street, in the same neighborhood.

In the early 1950s, “my best friend went to work for Chuck's boss,” Carol Kenning says. “And I'd meet her for lunch sometimes at the office” where she eventually met the man she would marry in 1957 — a man she recognized from the neighborhood and from their morning rides on the long-gone Rochester subway.

In addition to their son, Brian, the Kennings had three daughters: Mary Clare Lyons of Pittsford; Dorothy Fitzgerald of Edgewater, Maryland; and Carol “Carrie” Nietta of Mamaroneck, Westchester County.

Among Mr. Kenning's clients was Harry Mangurian Jr., a fellow Rochesterian, World War II veteran and a fabulously successful businessman who ran a Florida real estate and construction firm, raced thoroughbred horses and once owned the Boston Celtics. Mangurian died just a few weeks before Colonel Kenning.

His client list, however, was not limited to well-known and wealthy clients, says Brian Kenning. “I always knew him to be incredibly hard working, seven days a week usually, and often well into the wee hours. He treated his clients very respectfully; big or small, they were always big to him. However, I would not want to be a defendant with him on the other side. He crushed opponents, would not stop until victory, did not care how long it took or what it took as long as he won.”

Colonel Kenning had a quirky habit of visiting with the refuse collectors whenever they'd come for a pickup, says his son. “He would often go out in the morning in his robe to talk to them. He would say to us, ‘Could you imagine what this place would be like if those guys were not around? Love your garbage man.'” It was a sign of his appreciation for people of all walks of life, the younger Kenning says.

He enjoyed the practice of law, “but Chuck always said his military service was the most important time in his life,” Carol Kenning says.

Colonel Kenning was assigned to the Eighth Air Force, 703 Bomb Squadron, 445th Bomb Group — a group at one time led by actor-turned-pilot Jimmy Stewart.

He was assigned to the 445th as a replacement pilot following one of the worst aviation losses of the war. On September 27, 1944, an inexplicable navigation error took the 445th's bombers off course, without their fighter plane escort. The planes had taken to the air over central Germany for a bombing run known as the Kassel mission. Once off course, they quickly encountered an array of German aircraft. Within minutes, all but four of 35 of the planes were shot down, and 118 U.S. and 18 German troops were killed. The mission devastated the 445th.

In 1990, Colonel Kenning joined a group of American and German soldiers who returned to the region to honor their slain comrades.

The replacements carried on and over several months ran many successful missions.

Paul Roxin of Brighton, a co-founder of the Geriatric Pilots and author of a 1998 book detailing many of their experiences, One Foot on the Ground, wrote a chapter about Colonel Kenning's last mission. His B-24 Liberator, named Sweet Sue, “was the lower left element of the lead squadron” on March 3, Roxin wrote, “meaning the first plane in the attack formation was ahead and to the right.”

The Americans came under fire by more than 50 German Messerschmitt 262 fighters. Colonel Kenning saw the tail of the lead bomber blown off, and as the plane arched upward, he dove to avoid a collision as his plane was being hit by enemy fire.

He quickly decided he and his crew would bail out at 24,000 feet. He went into a freefall for 10,000 feet, after apparently blacking out from the lack of oxygen, says Brian Kenning. He pulled the cord at 14,000 feet and floated slowly to the ground, somehow escaping the German fire. He nearly collided with a church steeple and then hit the ground so hard that he shattered his ankle.

It was a remarkable survival, Roxin says, again referring to Mr. Kenning's youth. “You had to teach these boys to mature and to think, and they did,” he says. “If you couldn't think, it could cost you your life.”

The first Germans on the scene wanted to lynch him, but he was rescued by soldiers and sent to a prisoner of war camp at Oschersleben, where he spent a month before the prison was liberated by American soldiers.

The prison camp experience was brief but horrible, says Carol Kenning. “They had nothing to eat except lard, which they put on stale bread,” she says. “For bandages, they used crepe paper.”

Back home, Colonel Kenning's family, having been told that he was missing over Germany, feared the worst. But an aunt opened her copy of Life magazine for April 16, 1945, and on page 27, she spotted him among a group of recently liberated prisoners.

Like so many returning soldiers, Colonel Kenning carried dark memories of the war with him, but, says his widow, his heart always went out to those who came home disfigured and disabled and who slipped quietly into obscurity.

For his service, he was awarded several medals, among them, the Air Medal, and three Oak Leaf clusters, a Purple Heart and three Battle Stars.

After the war, Colonel Kenning joined the Air Force reserves and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. As a prisoner of war and a wounded veteran, he was entitled to free military transportation when seats were available. The Kennings frequently went to Dover Air Base in Delaware and hopped a flight to Europe or even to Iceland. “We never knew where we'd be going,” says Carol Kenning, “But I always loved the adventure.”

The travel benefit was wonderful, she says, but so too was the medical care he received through the Veterans Affairs Department when he required nursing care in his final years.

He was a member of the Rochester Yacht Club and the Geriatric Pilots Association, a group of World War II pilots who often did presentations in Rochester-area schools.

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