David A. Kenney knew from the moment he answered the ad, this would be no ordinary job.
It was wartime: World War II. Kenney had just completed Army basic training and courses to become a radio operator when he saw an intriguing post on his battalion's bulletin board.
It said "Wanted: Volunteers for a dangerous overseas assignment."
“I was interested,” said the 94-year-old Rancho Palos Verdes resident with a smile, “but had misgivings about the dangerous part.”
The Army captain who interviewed Kenney for the assignment was a bit evasive.
“I can’t tell you a thing about it, Dave,” he said. “But I can tell you this; you’ll never regret making this decision.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Kenney replied, “Sign me up.”
Kenney joined the Office of Strategic Services, considered to be America's first spy agency, a predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.
On Wednesday, April 17, 2019, Kenney, surrounded by family and friends at his Canterbury senior living facility, was awarded an OSS Congressional Gold Medal for his role in helping the Allies end the last world war.
Kenney received the medal from his grand-nephew, David L. Kenney, a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army's special forces.
At its peak in late 1944, OSS employed nearly 13,000 men and women, according to cia.gov. Today, there are fewer than 100 living members.
“It was a highly secret organization involved in a wide range of clandestine activities,” Kenney said. “We were told not to tell anyone anything about it, not even our family members.”
The OSS was established by President Roosevelt on June 13, 1942, to collect and analyze strategic information and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies.
But, the critical organization was largely ignored until 2016 when Congress passed the Office of Strategic Services Congressional Gold Medal Act to acknowledge the team's World War II service.
Kenney, a soft-spoken man with an appealing sense of humor, grew up on a ranch near the town of Encampment, a rural Rocky Mountain village, high in the Rocky Mountains of southern Wyoming.
After graduating high school, he was immediately drafted into the army. His two older brothers were already in the service and Kenney’s parents wanted him to get an agricultural deferment so he could help with the ranch.
His sister, a journalist, offered to quit her job and take over Kenney’s agricultural duties because, as he put it, “I desperately wanted to get into the service. It was the patriotic thing to do.”
After answering the ad that fateful day, Kenney and the other OSS volunteers were sent to a secluded camp in Virginia to begin their secret service training.
After several months of mission-specific training in the hills of Virginia, Kenney was sent to England in August 1944.
He was assigned to Station Victor, a main OSS radio station near the village of Hurley. In November of that year, he was sent back to the United States for more training. Four months later, in April 1945, he was deployed to Kunming, China.
Kenney’s China assignment was dangerous:
He was sent to work in an abandoned German Methodist Orphanage—only 10 miles from the enemy.
“Not to worry,” he said.
”We were issued cyanide capsules coated in glass ‘just in case.’"
Fortunately, for Kenney, it was a decision he never had to make as the great war was coming to a close.
"...things were going so badly for the enemy and within weeks they were no longer a threat," said Kenney.
"It was a relief to turn in our capsules.”
After Japan surrendered in August 1945, ending World War II, Kenney was given a new position as a radio operator on a four-man team in Nanchang, China.
“Our mission was to uncover and document instances of enemy atrocities (Japanese torture) for the war crimes trials,” he said. “That mission terminated in December, 1945. I returned to Washington D.C., and was discharged on Christmas Eve.”
During his two and a half years in the service, Kenney earned many citations including the Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Medal, European-African-Middle-Eastern Theater Ribbon, Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon and the China War Memorial Badge and Ribbon.
Kenney moved to California after his discharge, earned a bachelors of science degree in aeronautical engineering. He worked for Northrop Grumman until he retired in 1983.
He moved to Palos Verdes Estates in 1962 and lived there for 53 years, before moving to the Canterbury senior living residence.
Other passions and pastimes
While Kenney was working at Northrop, he developed a passion for classic cars. In 1965, he imported a rare 1936 Morgan 3-Wheeler from England, and in 1979 he purchased a 1969 Lamborghini Miura.
Although he no longer owns the cars, he’ll never forget them.
“I enjoyed both of those cars immensely,” he said with pride.
In addition to classic cars, Kenney enjoyed flying.
“I was just crazy about flying—all my life. When I was a kid, 13 years old, my sister arranged for me to be taken up in a 1928 biplane and that was great fun. The first thing I did when I got out of the service was take flying lessons.”
After he learned how to fly, Kenney bought an Ercoupe airplane.
“It was a sporty looking little plane,” he said, “but its bulky complicated landing gear clearly needed wheel fairings. The fairings would improve both the appearance of the plane and its speed.”
Kenney spent about five years getting the fairings designed, tested and certified by the FAA. In 1965, he started Kenney Engineering a company that produced and marketed his products.
Another interest of Kenney’s is writing. When he was a junior in high school, the newspaper his sister worked for needed a country correspondent, she gave the job to him and he wrote a weekly column.
“But I didn’t start writing seriously until 1961,” he said. “I always got the Wall Street Journal and there was a humor column called Pepper and Salt that featured jokes and doggerel (short humorous verses). I said ‘well I could do that’ and I sent some in and they printed 40 or 50 of them—I got $5 a piece for each one.”
Over the years, Kenney has written satirical essays, articles for Westways Magazines and an article for the Christian Science Monitor. He’s in a writing group at the Canterbury, revising a couple of novels and enjoying life.