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Blog: Coronado Veteran Gets Purple Heart, 68 Years Later

January 28, 1945: 11,000 Allied POWs were forced to march 60 miles through the worst snow storm in 50 years. Now, 68 years later, a Coronado man receives the Purple Heart for that experience.

Colonel Richard Kenney, a Humble WWII Hero, 

Receives Long-Overdue Recognition

 

CORONADO – Second Lieutenant Dick Kenney was a fireball of a pilot. He flew the punishing P-38 Lightning, earning four confirmed kills and a Distinguished Flying Cross, before German anti-aircraft guns blew his plane out of the sky over Sicily.

Kenney spent the last two years of the war in Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp, healing a severely burned and battered body, and giving up a considerable portion of his life. But the final blow by the enemy occurred in January of 1945, as Russian troops drew close and Germany was about to topple.

It was then, just when there seemed to be hope of seeing home and loved ones, that Adolf Hitler ordered all four POW camps in the area to begin a forced, 60-mile march, deep into the interior of Germany. It mattered not to Hitler that they were in the midst of the worst blizzard in 50 years. He wanted his prisoners to avoid capture by the Russians. He wanted them as a bargaining chip in those final, desperate months when winning the war was no longer an option.

There were 11,000 Allied airmen in a column stretching 20 miles when the infamous march began. The temperature hovered around zero. They could hear Russian gunfire in the distance. Six inches of snow was on the ground. It continued to fall, as did the temperature, eventually dropping to 13 below zero.

Behind them flames reached high into the night sky as Stalag Luft III – the only home they had known these past years – burned. No one lifted a finger to extinguish the blaze.

Richard Kenney, weakened by starvation and exhaustion, survived the march that so many others did not. In the process he received frostbite on his hands and feet.

Now, nearly 70 years later, volunteer researcher Robert Sabel has unearthed evidence that Colonel Richard Kenney, USAF (Ret), was due a second Purple Heart to go along with his many other medals earned in wartime service to his country.

Sabel lives by his own motto, “Justice for Veterans.” A retired veteran himself, he began helping other vets search for lost records almost ten years ago. It started with a former B-24 pilot, also incarcerated at Stalag Luft III. Typically, Sabel will spend hundreds of hours contacting JAG officers, retired officers and enlisted men, family members, and sifting through piles of papers and on-line documents in his quest.

That first case resulted in success, but too late. The pilot died before he could receive his just due, a misfortune that serves as inspiration for Sabel to continue to help others. It’s become his passion.

“I wish I could find the key to an avenue that would open the way for other Army Air Force and Army veterans and/or next of kin to receive what is due for their combat service so many years ago,” said the determined researcher. “It’s an unbalanced scale of recognition.”

The mailman delivered Colonel Kenney’s second Purple Heart without fanfare. That, along with memories he claims as the worst of the war, and the scars on his feet, are about all he has to show for that forced march at war’s end.

“I’ve never been one for awards and the like,” said a modest Colonel Kenney, 92, from his Coronado home. “It was war and we had a job to do. I only wanted to do the best job that I could. But yes, it’s nice to receive news that a second Purple Heart is now part of my service record.”

Stalag Luft III was a camp for allied pilots, run largely by their German counterparts. It was the basis for numerous books. Most will know Stalag Luft III from the movie starring James Garner and Steve McQueen called, “The Great Escape.”

“We thought the Nazis wanted to use us as human shields and hostages. We were given 30 minutes to grab some of our belongings and get ready for the march,” remembered Colonel Kenney recently. “The date was January 28, 1945. I’ll never forget that. And my bunkie [bunk mate] and I were near the end of the column. It was bitter cold, and we lived off discarded food that had become too much of a burden for the emaciated Kriegies [POWs] ahead of us to carry.”

For six days the prisoners slogged through the winter terrain. There were amazing stories from that march that have surfaced over the years. One allied pilot was seen removing his mittens and giving them to a young girl who had lost her parents and was crying from the cold.

Elaborate ship models, representing hundreds of hours of work, were soon tossed along the roadside by weakening POWs during the march, along with heavy bundles of food. War-ravaged villagers would run out of the night to grab what they could, despite threats from the German guards.

Some of the older German soldiers tossed their heavy guns into the snowdrifts. A few of the prisoners offered to carry their guns. Such was the nature of relationships made at Stalag Luft III over the years, where German pilots cared for Allied pilots in an unusual demonstration of esprit de corps. And yet, prisoners trying to escape were shot – both in Stalag Luft III and during the long march.

The prisoners were marched from Sagan to Hammerfel and through numerous other small villages before reaching Spremberg, where they were packed into small boxcars – up to 70 men forced into filthy cattle cars that would have been crowded at half that number.

“That was the worst,” said Colonel Kenney. “Those boxcars were cold and they didn't even have a pee hole. There was no room to lie down, and the smell was like nothing we had ever experienced. There were cattle droppings on the floor and we couldn’t see out.”

A modest description at best, in truth, the floor was also covered by three days of vomit and excrement. The only ventilation in the cars came from two small windows near the ceiling, at opposite ends of the boxcars. Meanwhile, the train continued on through the frozen countryside and bombed out German cities.

The train, with armed German guards atop each car, lumbered through Dresden, Stammlager and Moosburg before reaching its destination 30 miles north of Munich, Stalag VII-A. The train trip, unbelievably, lasted two days and three nights. The prisoners were given no water and no food rations during this time. It would be the final journey for many.

Survivors found Stalag Luft VII-A, a camp built for 10,000, unable to support the 80,000 now jammed within her barbed wire. Without the life sustaining Red Cross parcels now being confiscated by the enemy, survival was on a loaf of black bread to split between 16 men, a teaspoon of sugar a day, and an occasional ounce of meat or broth. In this vermin and lice-infested camp, lacking sanitary facilities and food, the POWs held on until Spring.

Dick Kenney and his fellow prisoners of war were liberated when General George Patton’s troops rolled on to the scene. Colonel Kenney keeps a small reminder of that final day of captivity - April 29, 1945. It’s a paragraph on a small piece of paper he uses as a bookmark that describes their liberation:

“On the morning of April 29, 1945, elements of the 14th Armored Division of Patton’s 3rd Army attacked the SS troops guarding Stalag VII-A. Prisoners scrambled for safety. Some hugged the ground or crawled into open concrete incinerators. Bullets flew seemingly haphazardly. Finally, the American task force broke through, and the first tank entered, taking the barbed wire fence with it. The prisoners went wild. They climbed on the tanks in such numbers as to almost smother them. Pandemonium reigned. They were free!”

Dick Kenney found his way across Europe and back to his home in Coronado. For years he lived in the solitude of Lake Tahoe, but now resides in Coronado, his hometown, where, in his youth, he exercised polo ponies at the Country Club and raced sailboats on Glorietta Bay while attending Coronado High School (Class of ’38). For Colonel Dick Kenney life has come full circle.

Note: Coronado residents will remember the generosity of Colonel Dick Kenney in 2007 when he purchased the original Hotel del Coronado Laundry truck - a bright red, 1923, Model T panel truck that had operated out of the Hotel del Coronado and driven the streets of Tent City and Coronado during the Roaring Twenties. He bought the truck for $14,000 and donated it to a local museum along with the comment, “It’s time she came back home to Coronado, where she belongs, and here is where she will stay.” It doesn’t fall on deaf ears to hear that comment now, and realize it also applied to a war-battered young man coming home from WWII many years ago.

For more information on Colonel Richard Kenney, or to reach him for interviews, contact Joseph Ditler at (619) 435-0767 or write josephditler@san.rr.com.

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