On Aug. 29, 1944, 1st Lt. William F. Kuykendall, flying a P-47 Thunderbolt on an armed reconnaissance mission with 2 other aircraft, was hit by German anti-aircraft fire and bailed out of his plane and landed in the countryside on the right bank of the Rhone River near La Roche de Glun, France.
Although reports at the time indicated that he was unhurt in the incident, USAAF records say that he was wounded and died in a Red Cross hospital in Lyon, France, the next day. His plane crashed into the river.
Lt. Kuykendall left behind a young daughter, Julia, from his first marriage and his present wife living in Hampshire County, Mary Gretchen Van Fleet Kuykendall, who was to give birth some 4 months later to his son, William F. Kuykendall II.
His son grew up with scant information about his father and little contact with either the paternal side of his family or any knowledge at all of the existence of his half sister.
Romantic visions and fantasies in the mind of the young boy persisted into adulthood, but never resulted in the dreamed of return of the father who he imagined would reappear after many years of battle-caused amnesia to reclaim his lost family.
These thoughts never entirely faded but were, in time, replaced with years in which the son studied histories of World War 2, learned and memorized stories of aircraft and accounts of battles, traveled and raised a family of his own.
He eventually learned of, met and came to love his half sister and her family and grew closer to his fraternal uncle and cousins.
It was the son of one of those cousins, Major Andrew Kuykendall, who, having become fascinated and inspired by the mystery surrounding Lt. Kuykendall’s service and death and who, while stationed in Germany, began researching the story of his plane crash and subsequent death.
It had been known for some time that Lt. Kuykendall was buried in the American Military Cemetery in Ardennes near Liege, Belgium, and Andrew had visited his grave there. Through his research and interviews with local people, Andrew had pieced together an historical profile of the events from that fateful day.
It was, apparently, well known among the local population, and Lt. Kuykendall’s name was to be found on several monuments in the area of La Roche de Glun.
Nearly a year ago word was received that several pieces of his plane, including the propeller, had been recovered from the Rhone River and taken to the War Birds Museum in Montelimar, France, a few kilometers downstream from the crash site.
At this point a French World War 2 memorial society, called the Association Rhodaninne Pour De Souvenir Aerien (ARSA) had taken an interest in the story and his son William “Bill” Kuykendall, now living in Maine, was contacted.
Events were planned by ARSA for a memorial service, dedication of a monument at the crash site, museum exhibits and other festivities both somber and joyous.
It seemed that the entire area was involved. The French people have been very warm and enthusiastic in their appreciation of the American support given in World War 2 and their uplifting spirits served to present an incredible experience for the Kuykendall family this past week.
Bill and Mary Kuykendall and Andrew’s parents, Galen and Sarah Kuykendall, attended events in La Roche de Glun and Montelimar on Oct. 26 and 27 that included the dedication of the monument on the Rhone with formal military honor guard, laying of wreaths, brass band and choral group as well as attendance by veterans and local and regional dignitaries and well as community members numbering close to 200.
The events were followed by luncheons and tours and speeches and the opening of the exhibit of mementoes from Lt. Kuykendall’s life, both in the military and here at home in West Virginia, in the town hall followed by a re-opening of the exhibit at its new home in the Air Birds Museum.
All of these events were extremely moving and have served to, as several dignitaries observed, “have the circle of life come full round and fill in many holes in the hearts and minds of the family who didn’t lose a father who was a figure in the mist of the past but who was a real-life hero.”