Shortly before the 50-year anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy, I interviewed 88-year-old Bill Kunkle, who had driven the future president around Portland while JFK campaigned in 1960.
When I asked what they’d talked about, he mentioned Kennedy’s PT boat experiences — and Kunkle’s Navy medical corps experiences — in WWII.
And then his head bowed, his face reddened and he could not speak.
I knew exactly where he was, having interviewed him two years ago for The Register-Guard’s World War II series.
He was at Pearl Harbor.
He was in hospital rooms, watching badly burned sailors die.
He was locked in his own personal hell.
As we remember Pearl Harbor 72 years later, we should pause to remember the 2,402 Americans who died, the 1,282 who were injured and their families.
But we should also remember the men and women who don’t make the statistical categories but were wounded for life.
The Bill Kunkles of the world.
Kunkle wanted to serve in the military so badly that he altered his birth certificate, making a “5” look like a “3,” as if, born in 1923, he would appear to be 18 instead of 16.
But after 16 months as a medic he was so shell-shocked and guilt-ridden that the Navy sent him home.
He was a medical corpsman stationed at Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital. While he arrived nearly a year after the December 1941 Japanese attack, he treated some of its victims and saw “the worst of the worst” of others seriously wounded in the South Pacific.
“I would sit with these guys and watch them die, and there was nothing I could do,” he says. “I felt so helpless. This went on for day after day, week after week, month after month.
“The ships were still upside down in the harbor,” he says. “There was still blood and oil seeping up from the bay.”
Kunkle originally joined the Marines and was in boot camp before his forgery was discovered. By then he was 17 and eligible for the Navy.
“The burn victims were the worst,” he says. “We just didn’t have any medication for that. So slow to heal. So painful. I remember lifting this one guy and … ” — he buries his face in his hands, then mumbles, “his skin came off in my hands.”
He remembers watching a young man from his hometown, Pierre, S.D., die. “Guys without limbs. Guys who were burned. Guys mentally shot.”
Soon, so was Kunkle, not surprising given that, technically, he worked in what the military recognized as a combat zone.
He was honorably discharged in January 1944 and, by his own admission, has never recovered.
Nightmares. Fear of crowds — he couldn’t attend a football game, for example. And unending guilt.
He quit a police job in South Dakota because carnage at an accident scene brought it all back. Quit another job because he couldn’t be around so many other people. Finally found a career as an insurance claims adjustor, working alone.
Recent counseling has helped. Xanex calms the anxiety. But what’s really saved him, he says, has been a loving, understanding wife, Marvel.
On the day he was interviewed in 2011, she was visiting a grandson in Hawaii. “I couldn’t go there, no way,” Kunkle says. “I still see the blood and oil in the water.”
Epilogue: A freelance photographer, Kunkle won a federal arts grant to do an exhibit on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In Oregon, he photographed John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy as they campaigned for president. He and his wife, Marvel, have five children. Beyond the JFK piece, I also mentioned Kunkle in a story about a Memorial Service in which organizers surprised him by presenting the American flag to him.