Photos by Kirby Neumann-Rea
Friends listen as Ken Jernstedt tells of his World War II experiences. From left are Bill Sheppard, Bill Pattison,
Felix Tomlinson, Dave Jensen, and Bob Montgomery.
At lower right, Ken takes a surprise call from his friend, former Gov. Victor Atiyeh. Below left, Jernstedt stops in surprise at hearing the birthday song, with his guide dog, Driscoll, at his side.
By KIRBY NEUMANN-REA
July 23, 27, 2005
Coffee friends salute ‘Main guy’
Stories took off like salvoes of fighter planes on the mezzanine of Hood River Hotel.
Famous pilot and down-to-earth guy, Ken Jernstedt held court on his 88th birthday in the company of friends near and far.
Jernstedt, a decorated World War II pilot and former Hood River mayor and State Senator, came Wednesday for his regular morning coffee gathering with friends. He thought he was in for a typical conversation; he was in for a surprise.
“Ken’s our main guy. The head of the table,” said Sue Hull, sole female member of the daily coffee group that has been gathering regularly for longer than any of them remember.
Clyde Kirby created a banner, “Now You’re Both 88,” in tribute to Jernstedt’s U.S. Marine Corps American Volunteer Group 88.
Friends said that reaching that age milestone was a great hope to Jernstedt, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his airborne service with AVG 88 in 1941-42 protecting the Allies’ Burma Road and the vital supplies it carried. When Jernstedt was inducted to the Oregon Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003, he was described as “a legendary figure.”
On the hotel mezzanine table the coffee group formed a fighter plane out of muffins, with a “little green man” in the cockpit. At 8 a.m., all was in ready for Jernstedt’s arrival.
When he got to the top of the stairs 20 people burst into the birthday song. It was not the last surprise of the morning — more later on a phone call from an old friend named Victor.
With his faithful guide dog Driscoll at his side, Jernstedt clutched at his cap and gave a grateful gasp.
“What the — by gosh ...” was all he said.
Once he got settled, he quietly honored his friends’ requests to tell them about China in 1942, about meeting Charles Lindbergh, and other scintillating slices from an extraordinary life.
“For two weeks, all we did was take big-shots up for half-hour rides,” Jernstedt recalled from his c. 1943 test pilot days at Drummond Aircraft on Long Island. Jernstedt and others tested upgraded versions of the P-47 fighter.
“One morning, this old grandma came for a ride. She just about disappeared inside her parachute but she was ready to go,” Jernstedt recalled. “I asked her if she had told all her neighbors what she was doing, and she said she’d told everyone in town. I asked her where she lived and told her we’ll let everyone know you’re in the air.
“Well, I went in below the second story of some buildings, and I did banks and loops, rolls and everything. I went through the whole repertoire. When we got down I took her photo and I sometimes wonder whatever happened to that old grandma. She got the ride of her life.”
“How did you get into the AVG group, Ken?” someone asked.
The ace pilot doesn’t take long to find the way to bring humor to his answers.
He was a Navy-trained lieutenant and the request came, via President Roosevelt, for he and other pilots to relinquish their commissions in order to serve in the newly formed AVG to protect the Burma Road. Two of his buddies also got the call.
“Three guys can talk each other into just about anything,” Jernstedt quipped.
“Did you really have 15 in one day?”
Jernstedt steered the facts back to earth on the report that he shot down 15 Japanese planes in a single day. Actually, he and a partner got 15, in two adjacent airstrips in Burma — Japanese bases they had not expected to find.
The men in the air and the men on the ground all were surprised — Jernstedt in one plane and his fellow pilot in another destroyed 15 planes, parked wingtip to wingtip, and got credit for 7.5 each.
“Fifteen in one day, though, that was as good as any day,” he said.
During his nine months in China, he shot down another five in the air, hence the Distinquished Flying Cross.
The Hood River coffee group is not the only gathering to enjoy Ken Jernstedt’s stories. He regularly attends reunions of the group, and is one of 10 of the Flying Tiger pilots still alive. Four others attended this year’s reunion, in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Coffee group member Allen Bell accompanied Jernstedt to Grand Rapids. Bell told of a commercial pilot that saw Jernstedt, with his Flying Tiger insignia, in a shuttle bus at Chicago’s O’Hare International.
“Were you really a Flying Tiger?” the pilot asked. Jernstedt averred he was. Jernstedt and Bell got settled in the back of the bus. The pilot was about to get off the plane but came back and said, “I just want to shake your hand and thank you for all you did.”
Said Bell, “that kind of thing happens to Ken all the time.”
Despite his notoriety, the soft-spoken war hero and community leader was touched by his friends’ birthday reception.
“It was a complete surprise, and they will never know how good it made me feel.”
Ken Jernstedt reached a double milestone on July 20.
As reported earlier in this story, his morning coffee group friends threw a breakfast surprise party on Jernstedt’s 88th birthday.
Reaching that age milestone was a great hope to Jernstedt, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his airborne service with AVG in 1941-42 protecting the Allies’ Burma Road and the vital supplies it carried. The number 88 is significant because that was also the number of Jernstedt’s plane in the AVG.
Jernstedt, a former Hood River mayor (1959-60 and 1989-90) and State Senator for 20 years, heard the greetings of 20 friends on the mezzanine of the Hood River Hotel, where typical conversation was replaced by salvoes of stories by Jernstedt of his flying days. (The Hood River airport is named for Ken Jernstedt.)
Joining in the surprise was former Gov. Victor Atiyeh, who called Jernstedt to wish him a happy birthday. Atiyeh is a friend, and was governor during Jernstedt’s service in the Oregon Legislature in the 1960s and 1970s.
A banner reading “Now You’re Both 88” with a picture of a Flying Tiger hung on one wall, and the group presented Jernstedt with a two-foot-tall birthday card carrying all their signatures. At Jernstedt’s side, as usual, was his guide dog, Driscoll, who slept through the gathering.
Sue Hull, who organized the event, presented Jernstedt with a t-shirt bearing a photo of a Flying Tiger, and the words, “What a Ride.”
“This is my number-one t-shirt,” a beaming Jernstedt said.
He raised his coffee mug and said, “Here’s to all you guys.”
Then the group listened to a man who had 17 flight landings onto aircraft carriers — the early ones that were less well-equipped for landings by small fighters such as Wildcats and F3Fs — the last fighter biplanes built.
“Carrier landings — that was one of the reasons I went to China,” he said of his selection to the dangerous new assignment of joining the AVG to guard the Burma Road, the track across southeast Asia that bore vital supplies for the war against Japan.
Jernstedt recalled one landing when his plane’s tailhook somehow cut the wire that was stretched across the plane to help it stop.
“My plane shot down one side of the carrier and finally stopped right at the end of it,” Jernstedt said. “I was looking 60 feet down into the ocean.”
Jernstedt and the crew looked at the wire and saw it was not torn but cut in two. His was one of two planes to cut a wire that day. The tail hooks were new and had never been filed off so it was round, making it “just like a knife edge.”
Jernstedt met the great Charles Lindbergh, the first man to solo across the Atlantic, at the Grumman airplane factor on Long Island, in 1943. Both pilots were there to test the new F6S plane. Jernstedt, out of respect, offered Lindbergh his place in the flight order, knowing that Lindbergh had farther to travel home. Lindbergh demurred, but Jernstedt said, “I insisted he fly first.”
Lindbergh took up the F6S and after flying for awhile, he could not get the landing gear to drop.
“Grumman had every engineer in the factory on the radio trying to figure out what to do,” Jernstedt said. Lindbergh finally put the plane into a dive and then pulled up fast, and the wheels went into place, allowing him to land safely, Jernstedt recalled.
“I said to Lindbergh, ‘thanks for checking that gear out for me’.”
Jernstedt also recalled catching a ride home from China, first aboard an airliner courtesy of the airline owner, but only so far as West Africa. From there, he had to squeeze into the belly of a B-24 bomber — its bomb bays filled not with ordnance but with bales of raw rubber. So scarce were cargo planes in those days that bombers were employed to bring the valuable wartime commodity to American factories, Jernstedt recalled flying in the May 1941 dedication of the Washington National Airport in the capital, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt watching. Every part of the armed services brought all available aircraft, flying them in stacks a few hundred feet apart up to 10,000 feet.
“There were 431 airplanes — a lot of airplanes in the air at once but more than half of them were biplanes,” Jernstedt said — evidence at the time of the U.S. ill-prepared air fleet for the war to come.
One of Jernstedt’s greatest memories, and greatest honors, was when, in 1943, he served on a pilots’ honor guard at a fundraising event where Madame Chiang Kai Shek of the Nationalist Chinese was present, along with eight governors, the British ambassador. He also met the man who was commander of the U.S. Air Corps (later Air Force), Gen. Hap Arnold.
“Gen. Arnold told me (the AVG) had made the greatest contribution to the war, when there was bad news from everywhere else but we were doing what we did, and with U.S.-made planes.
“The general told me, ‘you raised the moral of the United States for six months’.”
Next to Jernstedt at the table, Glenn Adams told him, “I still remember my Mom and Dad telling me about the Flying Tigers, and how much it meant to them.”
Rodger Schock told him, “Ken, we all appreciate what you have done, and appreciate you as a person.”
Said Jernstedt, “I’ve been lucky,” referring to his piloting days, his service as mayor and in the legislature, and his years distributing soda beverages in the Gorge.
He rounded out the birthday party in typical Jernstedt good humor by recalling a crash while descending, but one that had nothing to do with what he called “a dull military life.”
“I survived all that without getting hurt. My biggest scar was when I got hurt riding down a street in Hood River on a Vespa.”