This Day in History: David Kingsley's bravery in the skies
On this day in 1918, a hero is born. David Kingsley is known for his service in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II—but the Portland firefighter was living a life of service even before that.
Kingsley was used to hard times. His father, a policeman, was killed in a car crash when Kingsley was just 10 years old. His mother was diagnosed with cancer not too long after that, and she passed away in 1939. David was one of nine children, and he spent many of these years standing in the gap and helping his siblings.
David’s sister would remember that their mother “taught us to love each other, take care of each other, and take care of anyone in need.”
How unsurprising, then, that this young man leapt to serve when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
By early 1944, Kingsley was a second lieutenant serving with the 341st Bomb Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group as a B-17 Flying Fortress bombardier. On June 23, he and his crew were facing their toughest mission to date: an attack on oil fields and refineries around Ploiesti, Romania.
Ploiesti was a vital source of fuel for Nazi Germany and was heavily defended.
Kingsley’s crew was to attack the Dacia Oil Refinery, but as the B-17 neared its target, it was hit by enemy fire. The plane lost altitude and was forced out of formation, but pilot Edwin Anderson had no intention of abandoning his target. He skillfully kept the damaged B-17 going while Kingsley “successfully dropped his bombs,” as his Medal citation describes, “causing severe damage to vital installations.”
Anderson could finally turn back, but by then the B-17 was severely damaged. Making matters worse, enemy fighters were soon on their tail.
Several crew members were wounded, and Kingsley hurried to help his friends as Anderson fought to keep the plane in the air. When the third engine died, Anderson knew that the crew would need to bail out.
Tail gunner Mike Sullivan was too badly wounded to help himself. “Everyone on the plane was bailing out,” Sullivan’s wife described many years later, “but his parachute had been damaged in the attack. He was lying on his back with head wounds and too weak to pull himself up.”
Kingsley knew what he had to do. Seemingly without hesitation, he strapped his own parachute onto Sullivan.
“David then took me in his arms and struggled to the bomb bay,” Sullivan would remember, “where he told me to keep my hand on the rip cord and said to pull it when I was clear of the ship . . . . I jumped. I looked at Dave the look he had on his face was firm and solemn. He must have known what was coming because there was no fear in his eyes at all.”
Kingsley went down with the mortally wounded B-17, and his body would later be found in the wreckage. Meanwhile, Sullivan survived. He was captured on the ground and spent time as a POW, but he eventually went home. Once there, he wrote Kingsley’s brother, Tommy.
“Tommy, I am more than grateful that my life was spared by your brother Dave giving up his life so that I could live,” Sullivan wrote. “I am not ashamed to admit when I think of Dave I also have tears come into my eyes, if it weren’t for me getting wounded Dave’s life would have been saved.”
But surely Kingsley would have been more focused on what his sacrifice gained: Sullivan returned home to a full life—and future generations benefited. When Sullivan passed away at age 84, he had two daughters and six grandkids.
And it was all because one man selflessly sacrificed himself over the skies of Europe.
Rest in Peace, Lt. Kingsley.
David R. Kingsley (Oregon Military Museum Project website)
Joan Giangrasse Kates, Michael J. Sullivan, 84 (Chicago Tribune; Nov. 3, 2003)
Kingsley—2nd Lt David R Kingsley (Air Force Historical Support Division; Dec. 02, 2014)
Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., The Final Flight of David R. Kingsley (USAF: 142nd wing; May 24, 2018)
Master Sgt. Jefferson Thompson, Kingsley Field honors namesake Lt. David R. Kingsley with new flagship (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service; Jan. 10, 2020)
Medal of Honor citation (David Richard Kingsley; WWII)
Medal of Honor: Kingsley, David R. (U.S. Air Force website)