Claude Ross Kinsey, Jr. – Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force

Claude R. Kinsey Jr., 86, a “flying sergeant” who became one of the earliest U.S. aces of  World War II and who escaped a prisoner-of-war camp by walking 100 miles through Italy across German lines, died February 4, 2006 of cancer in Springfield, Virignia.

Lieutenant Colonel Kinsey, who entered the Army Air Forces as an enlisted man and trained to fly while still a buck Private, was credited with shooting down seven enemy planes over North Africa between January 29 and April 5, 1943, when he was shot down by his own inexperienced wingman. He bailed out of his burning P-38 Lightning fighter, landing in 3 feet of water near Tunis, Algeria, blinded from swollen eyes and temporarily paralyzed below the waist. He was captured by residents who turned him over to the Italian military.

The 23-year-old Second Lieutenant, after recovering from severe burns, ended up at a large POW camp near Chieti, Italy, where he stayed until the end of September 1943, when the Italian guards fled and were replaced by Germans. The Germans moved the prisoners to a camp near Sulmona, Italy, where, on the first night, the young pilot slipped out, evaded machine-gun fire and began his 30-day start-and-stop escape down the Apennine Mountains toward Bari, near
Campobasso, according to a 40-page excerpt of his unpublished biography.

He hid in a hut that prison guards used to store tools. He traded three days’ labor in an Italian family’s vineyard for food, shelter and peasant clothes, including shoes that were two sizes too big. Trying to avoid towns, he hiked 1-½ miles through a pitch-black train tunnel that was big enough only for a train. Days later, he came down with severe diarrhea and was taken in by a shepherd who nursed him back to health, and whose cloak he used for warmth and disguise as he resumed his journey. He shared a meal with Gypsies and twice dodged German patrols.

When he found the front lines, he had lost 35 pounds from his 150-pound frame. Avoiding live artillery emplacements, he walked through what he later learned was a German minefield, then crossed paths with a squad of Canadian soldiers, who took him to their headquarters. He discovered that his own unit, the 82nd Fighter Group, 96th Fighter Squadron, was based nearby.

In his absence, Colonel Kinsey had earned a promotion to first lieutenant. His commander offered him a choice of the Distinguished Service Cross or the Distinguished Flying Cross and, unaware of the higher prestige of the former, he opted for the latter award.

Back in his home town of Aurora, Illinois, by Thanksgiving 1943, Mr. Kinsey was celebrated for his exploits. He was already well-known from his high school days, when he set state track records and was the all-state quarterback for the football team. He also lettered in basketball and golf. He went to the University of Montana on an athletic scholarship in 1939 but left after a few weeks because of homesickness. He worked briefly with his father at a factory that built road graders before enlisting in 1940, just before he turned 20.

He was one of the handful of enlisted men who were allowed to undergo flight training the year before the United States entered World War II. He was in the first class of “flying sergeants” who expected to pilot noncombat missions. But after Pearl Harbor, the shortage of qualified pilots resulted in the group being trained to fly the new, twin-boomed Lockheed P-38 fighters.

After his return to the States, Colonel Kinsey was told by Pentagon officials that since the Italians were now allies, he should not write a book or go public with details of his time at the prison camp. When reporters for the Chicago Tribune said they wanted to write a weeklong serial of his exploits, he told them to first get clearance from the War Department. The government refused, and military officials threatened him with a court-martial, then put a statement in his service record. That statement, Colonel Kinsey later believed, cost him promotions for nine years.

The Army Air Force sent him on a tour of the nation as a war hero to promote the sale of war bonds. He spent the remainder of the war as a P-38 combat instruction pilot. He also taught men how to refuel aircraft. By the time he became a captain, he had transferred to the Strategic Air Command, for which he flew B-47 Stratojet bombers, some of them loaded with nuclear weapons. He retired in 1965 as a squadron commander.

In addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross, his military awards included a Purple Heart and nine awards of the Air Medal.

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Elizabeth “Lila” Kinsey of Springfield, Virginia.; sons, Claude Kinsey III of Fort Washington, Maryland, and Daniel Kinsey of Bohemia, New York; and three grandchildren.

Colonel Kinsey was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on 3 March 2006.

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