BECKLEY, W. Va. — You could call Mike Kinsley an amateur genealogist, his sole project a scatter plot of black and white images, each point representing members of the Kinsley family grafted onto the branches of a tree of another kind — the U.S. military.
There is an epoch upon which Mike reflects with the highest degree of respect, one preceding his birth. A time when Meatless Mondays weren’t part of an animal rights initiative or a personal quest to increase longevity, but an attempt to ration food supplies to feed war-weary Europe.
“A lot of times, the only meat on the family table was the fatback in the beans,” he explains.
Mike tells of an America with self-sustaining Victory Gardens blooming across her expanse, in backyards, in empty lots and even on rooftops, well in advance of trendy organic urban oases. A time in history when not only his father, Dave Kinsley of Wyoming County, but he and seven brothers went dutifully off to war — Vernon, Roy, Earl, Hunter, Jim, Harry and Jack Kinsley.
“I heard a quote probably 10 years ago dealing with the Iraqi War,” Mike recalls, “and it has always stuck with me, that America’s not at war — America’s at the mall and the military is at the war.”
For Mike, whose own son served in Iraq, support for recent wars pales in comparison to the solidarity shown during World War II, an impressive scaffolding of humanity he’s only heard of and read about. “They recycled everything. They rationed everything. Women went to work for the war effort. My mom and her father worked in a shipyard at Bremerton, Washington, before she met my dad.”
Born to John and Betty Kinsley, the early life of the eight brothers and their three sisters was that of a big family in a rural area with little space in between them. The brothers protected one another in their small town and, when they could, in war.
Life was hard then and about to get harder for the family, as the youngest, Jack, remembers. Jack was born at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. “I remember Dad looking out for us. He raised over half of what we ate.” The family had gardens and animals — chickens, hogs and cows. “Dad worked in the mines and he couldn’t read or write. I remember when she’d get a letter from one of my brothers, Mom would sit down and read it to Dad when he got home from work. She worried an awful lot about us.” Jack joined the military shortly after the war in ’46, when he was stationed in the Allied Occupation of Germany.
They were just boys, remembers Dave, boys at a time when there was little if any work to be found back home. Most of the Kinsleys volunteered their service. Dave joined the Navy at age 17, in April of ’41, eight months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was stationed on the USS Washington BB-56, eventually sailing for the Pacific on Aug. 23, 1942. His brother, Jim, was on the same ship — double jeopardy to a family that stood to lose seven of eight sons, potentially two in a single incident of war.
“I was on there when (Jim) joined. There were several families of brothers there, serving together. They talked about, when the Sullivans got killed, separating brothers, but they never did do it.” Unlike the five Sullivan siblings of Waterloo, Iowa, who all perished in WWII, despite one Kinsley brother suffering life-threatening injury and illness, none of them lost life or limb to the war. “We stayed together ’til it was over,” says Dave, who changed his three-year enlistment to the duration of the war plus six months, voluntarily extending his service to country.
Following WWII, most of the brothers took positions in the coal mines, with the balance heading north to the mills. Today, three of the eight brothers remain. Dave and Jack are Raleigh County residents, while Hunter, a Purple Heart recipient and the brother who saw the most battle, suffered injury and achieved the highest military ranking among them as Army staff sergeant. He lives in Baltimore, Md.
From an assisted living facility where he recently moved, Hunter recalls being wounded in the Philippines when he was hit in the leg by a piece of shrapnel. “I was in a field hospital for 44 days, then everything went downhill from there.” He says he didn’t realize he had developed malaria until he returned to the U.S., where the mosquito-borne infectious disease nearly took his life.
“I served for three years, nine months and 28 days. I was proud of it when I was in there, but I was really, really happy to get out.”
When Hunter arrived stateside, the 5-foot-8 soldier weighed only 118 pounds. “They were too busy to take the shrapnel out when it happened — there were too many people getting hurt.” Eighteen years after injury, Hunter had the material removed. It would be considerably longer before he realized another moment of closure.
“I got (Hunter) signed up at the VA (Medical Center) in Maryland,” Jack remembers, of helping his brother. “I told the lady there that he’d gotten wounded in the Philippines and I asked when he’d ever get his Purple Heart.”
The VA got the process started, but Hunter’s wife, Thelma, kept pressing to make sure her husband received the honor due him for his sacrifice. “If it wasn’t for Thelma, I would have never got it.” Thelma passed away just last November; the two had been married for 67 years. Hunter is still relatively healthy for a 94-year-old, remarking that he is a couple inches shy of his military height, now at 5 feet 6 inches.
Former Rosie the Riveter Mary Kinsley asks: “Can you put in something about how their mother (Betty) was a good Christian woman? I believe it was her prayers that brought her sons home.”
Her husband, Dave, is now 89. He remembers crossing the Arctic Circle at 18. He remembers having to wear his Navy blues to Hunter and Thelma’s wedding in ’45 and in a fair amount of southern West Virginia humidity. “I wanted to tell the preacher to make it short,” he says. He is today legally blind from macular degeneration and never got the chance to see the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. He still has, he says, a stamp given to him as he left the service. He calls it his “shoe stamp.”
“They gave you a stamp when you got discharged to get yourself a pair of shoes.” Shoes, he says, were rationed because of the war efforts.
Son Mike notes of all the things he’s heard through the years, he has never heard his dad or his uncles talk about the war in the context of being scared for their own lives. “For the most part, they just told stories of where they were at, and funny stories like how a lieutenant got his ships mixed up and boarded the wrong one.”
For that, and for reasons too numerous to count, they’ve earned his highest regard. Mike agrees without hesitation that his father’s was indeed the greatest generation.
“I’m not a big Tom Brokaw fan, but that is without a doubt one of the best observations ever made. What was remarkable was that these men had just come through the Great Depression and they seemed to know the value of everything — especially hard work.”