WAKE ISLAND HERO – Brigadier General John F. Kinney, U.S. Marine Corps, WWII and Korean War (1914-2006)

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Brigadier General John F. Kinney (1914-2006)

BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D.     It was less than a week before the December 7, 1941, attacks on both Pearl Harbor and Wake Island when General Kinney, then a Second Lieutenant, arrived on Wake Island with a squadron of 12 Grumman Wildcat fighter planes

When the Japanese air raid on Wake Island’s  airstrip was finished on December 8th, there were only four of the Grumman fighters fit to fly.  All of the unit’s plane mechanics had been killed in action.


Kinney supervised repairs as the squadron’s replacement engineering officer, as well as flying combat attacks against Japanese keeping the four remaining planes in operation by cannibalizing parts from destroyed aircraft. On December 11, the island’s combined air and shore defenses pushed back an amphibious assault, sinking two destroyers.

The projected U.S. relief attempt by Admiral Frank Fletcher‘s Task Force 11 (TF 11) and supported by Admiral Wilson Brown’s TF 14.  On 22 December, after receiving information indicating the presence of two IJN carriers and two fast battleships near Wake Island, Vice Admiral William S. Pye—the Acting Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet—ordered TF 14 to return to Pearl Harbor for fear of losses.

The U.S. Marines fired at the invasion fleet with their six 5-in (130 mm) coastal artillery guns. Major Devereux, the Marine commander under Cunningham, ordered the gunners to hold their fire until the enemy moved within range of the coastal defenses. “Battery L”, on Peale islet, succeeded in sinking Hayate at a distance of 4,000 yd (3,700 m) with at least two direct hits to her magazines, causing her to explode and sink within two minutes, in full view of the defenders on shore. Yubari‘’s superstructure was hit 11 times. The four Wildcats also succeeded in sinking another destroyer, Kisaragi, by dropping a bomb on her stern where the depth charges were stored. Both Japanese destroyers were lost with all hands, with Hayate becoming the first Japanese surface warship to be sunk during World War II. The Japanese force withdrew before landing. This was the first Japanese defeat of the war.

This small band of men, many who were civilians, held off the might of the Japanese Navy for 13 days. On December 23, Lieutenant Kinney and the rest of the Wake Island garrison including the 1221 civilians working for the Morrison-Knudsen Company  became a prisoners of war. Kinney was transported to Japan and then to Shanghai. He was interned in Kiangwan Prison from December 1942 to May 1945.

On May 10, 1945, as a train was moving prisoners to another camp, Lieutenant Kinney jumped off and escaped through China, a journey that took 47 days. He was reunited with U.S. troops and arrived home in Washington state on July 29.

“He and four other Marines jumped out of a train and were able to make contact with the Chinese communists, who took care of them and led them through the backwoods of China,” said his second wife, Bonnie (LaVonne) Heinsen Kinney.

In 1946, he was placed in command of the Marine Corps Aviation Technical School, where he and other instructors built the first jet engine test cell in the Navy. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1949 and attended the Air War College, graduating in 1950.

During the Korean War, he was assigned as operations officer of Marine Air Group 12, which served in Wonsan, Korea, and later in Pusan, Korea. He was instrumental in identifying problems with jet aircraft and flew with his squadron along the Yalu River.

He received the Silver Star for flights in the Yalu River area. He also received the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star for service in World War II, and another Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other awards, for service in Korea.

He rose to the rank of Colonel in 1956, and received his helicopter pilot designation the following year. He took command of a helicopter group stationed in Okinawa and the Philippines. In 1959, he retired from the Marine Corps with the rank of Brigadier General.

General Kinney later worked as a test pilot for two aircraft-makers and as an engineer for Lockheed. He retired from Lockheed in 1980.

In 1993, he built his home in Portola Valley, where he lived until 1997. In 1995, he co-wrote a book about his wartime experiences, “Wake Island Pilot: A World War II Memoir.”

His first wife, June Spenser, died in 2003. She and General Kinney married in 1945. General Kinney died in 2006 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.  In addition to his second wife, General Kinney is survived by stepchildren Don Heinsen of San Jose and Candyce Heinsen Carter of Reno.


Much of the material in this article was collected from a recently published book BUILDING FOR WAR, by Bonita Gilbert.  Her father Ted Olson was also a Wake POW.





  1. In 1941, Lt. Kinney was the personification of American ingenuity! From duct taping planes together to continue their fight, to his successful escape from the Japanese as a POW, Kinney represents in real life the American ideal better than John Wayne and other celluloid heroes could ever hope to portray. Americans must be free!

  2. Great article Duane about a real American hero. My father was a marine on Wake with Gen. Kinney. I had the pleasure of meeting Gen. Kinney a couple of times at "Defenders of Wake Island" reunions, the last time around 1995 in San Diego. I was always enthralled with their stories about the battle on Wake and their years as POW's. One of the highlights of my life was traveling back to Wake Island in 1985 and 1988 with the survivor group reunion trips. Both trips spending a few days in Honolulu before leaving for Wake. Each time we had a ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Thanks for sharing this story and memories of General Kinney and the Wake Island Marines.

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