Oregon’s first flying ace died Monday at age 95.
Hood River’s Ken Jernstedt Sr. was a pilot, community leader, father and businessman. His life was a long, full and adventurous one. Piloting the famed Flying Tiger aircraft over Burma in 1941-42, he shot down more than 10 Japanese airplanes, and that was just part of his World War II service.
Hood River’s airfield is named in his honor.
A Hood River resident since 1946, when he bought Hood River Bottling Works, Jernstedt died peacefully at 2 a.m. at the assisted living facility in Wilsonville where he had been living for the past two years, according to his daughter-in-law, Jill Arens Jernstedt.
A memorial service is planned for Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. at Hood River Valley Christian Church.
Jernstedt served as Hood River mayor and in the Oregon Legislature in the 1970s and 1980s.
He was born in 1917 in Yamhill County. He grew up there on a small farm in Carlton. After graduating from Yamhill Union High in 1935 Jernstedt went on to earn a bachelor’s in business administration from Linfield College, McMinnville, in 1939.
In 1941, Jernstedt decided to take up flying and joined the Marine Air Corps. Jernstedt didn’t stay with the Marines for long because his excellent flying skills caught the eye of those higher up. He was recruited to join one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s pet projects, the American Volunteer Group under General Claire Chennault, better known as the Flying Tigers.
Jernstedt was one of 100 “discharged” military personnel sent to China to protect the Chinese, and the Burma Road, from Japanese attack before America officially entered the war after Pearl Harbor.
During his one-year tenure with the Flying Tigers Jernstedt shot down or destroyed 10.5 Japanese planes, (the point five comes in because Jernstedt and a fellow AVG man came upon and blew up 14 Japanese aircraft on the ground. They each got credit for half).
After finishing his Burma tour in 1942, Jernstedt moved to New York where he worked for Republic Aviation as a test pilot. He flew almost every new breed of fighter plane developed during World War II.
In 1943 Jernstedt stood as honor guard for a visit from Madame Chiang Kai Shek of the Nationalist Chinese government and the Flying Tigers honorary commander. She decorated him for his valor in action. Jernstedt’s achievements with the AVG made him Oregon’s first flying ace, a title given to pilots who have taken down at least five planes.
After moving to Hood River in 1946, Jernstedt bought Hood River Bottling Works, a soft drink bottling facility in the county. He later expanded his business and took over Mid-Columbia Coca-Cola Company. Jernstedt was an early equal opportunity employer during his 25-year tenure as company owner and operator. He hired youth and people with disabilities.
After selling Mid-Columbia Coca-Cola, Jernstedt served a one-year term as account representative for Pacific Coca-Cola Bottling Co.
Jernstedt’s business ventures overlapped with the time he worked as a public servant and representative. He clocked 35 years of service to the county of Hood River and Oregon at large. He served variously on the city council, as director of the Hood River Chamber of Commerce, as mayor (in 1959 and 1989), and in the Oregon State Legislature (1966-1989). Jernstedt legislative career included one term in the House of Representatives and five in the Senate.
Among many other accomplishments as a city councilman, Jernstedt helped procure property for the National Guard Amory and, as mayor, assisted in the development of the city’s primary sewage treatment plant. While in the legislature Jernstedt focused his attention on issues dealing with natural resources, agriculture and economic development. He felt that many issues should be dealt with at the level of local governments.
Throughout his public service career Jernstedt was supported by his wife Gen. They were married in 1962. The couple brought seven kids into their marriage. Gen was a success in her own right while supporting her husband’s work. She was the first woman to serve on the Hood River City Council and she was Jernstedt’s legislative aide during his time in Salem.
The couple faithfully made the rounds to every county fair in the districts that Jernstedt represented: Wasco, Hood River, Sherman, Gilliam, Morrow and Wheeler counties. For his exemplary support, Jernstedt was the first senator to be presented a “Friends of the Fairs” award.
Jernstedt has been a longstanding and active member of the Elks, the American Legion and the Lions Club since 1946. Of the Lions Club, he said that he had served in every chair there — from deputy director to zone chairman.
Jernstedt attended Hood River Valley Christian Church and supported the congregation volunteering to hold many offices as a respected elder. He served as president of the church, chairman of the church board, co-chairman of the building committee and as a deacon.
Though he had retired from the public eye Jernstedt had continued to be active and supportive in the community, and received many awards for his long, dedicated years of service.
In 1981 the Air National Guard Base in Portland renamed their main entrance gate, the “Jernstedt Gate” in his honor. Linfield named Jernstedt its “Honorary Alumnus of the Year” in 1983. In 1996 Jernstedt earned a Flying Cross for his service with the Flying Tigers and in 1997 he was inducted as a lifetime member for the Oregon Pilots’ Association. In 2003 Jernstedt became one of the first nine inductees into the Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor.
In 1979 Jernstedt began losing his sight to glaucoma; barely two years later he fully lost vision in his right eye because of a detached retina. In 1996 Jernstedt was declared officially blind.
Jernstedt never let the encroaching dark slow him down. He served on the Oregon Commission for the Blind to help establish self-sufficiency programs for the blind, both for those young and old.
After he was declared blind Jernstedt was paired up with Driscoll, a faithful, yellow Labrador retriever guide dog. For 10 years the pair could be seen making their way around the coffee shops and visiting with all the locals, until Driscoll finally succumbed to old age in 2006. He was 12.
Tragically, Jernstedt never found a guide dog that could replace Driscoll; though he brought two others home for a time.