A CONVERSATION WITH DONALD J. KUTYNA,
General US Air Force, Grandson of Polish immigrants from Chicago,
REACHING FOR THE STARS.
from The Roots Are Polish
by Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm
Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm - Tell me about your parents and grandparents. How do you remember them? What part of Poland did they come from? Did they keep in touch with Polish relatives?
Donald J.Kutyna - My grandfather on my father’s side, John Kutyna was from Jaslo in Poland and immigrated to the United States in the late 1800’s. He married Antoinette Pawlus, and they had 10 children – 7 boys and 3 girls. His son, Francis Anthony Kutyna married Isabel Kmiec in 1933 (her father changed the name from Kowal to Kmiec). They were my parents. My grandparents on my mother’s side Julia Trela and Joseph Kmiec were from Smiegorzow near Tarnow, now it is called Tarnow Dabrowski. My grandfather was a self taught musician, very talented, and had the ability to compose.
Francis Anthony and Isabel had three children, I was the oldest, born in 1933; eight years later Francis Anthony Jr. was born and then, Antoinette, ten years younger than I. My father Francis Anthony was a musician, also very talented; he played the violin on different occasions including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But these were the depression years, and he had to go to work in a factory. He was a man of discipline and very demanding on us. Later, I told my mother that my first year at West Point was easier to complete because I learned discipline and obedience at home from my strict father. We were not a rich family, and my mother had to work too; she worked for Bell Telephone Company. As a boy, I was reared mostly by my grandparents, who owned a store. My earliest memories were of my grandparents.
A.Z-B. - What kind of atmosphere at home do you remember? Did your family cultivate the Polish language?
D.J.K. - My family was very close, I mean the whole family, all my uncles and aunts stuck together. We all spoke Polish at home, so Polish was my only language until I went to school. I can still speak Polish, although I don’t use it, and even with my mother I speak in English. (Mrs. Isabel Kutyna speaks good Polish- A.Z.-B).
I went to public school, but on Saturdays, like all kids in the neighborhood, I attended the Polish school. Then I was fluent in Polish.
A.Z-B. - You were honored with The Heritage Award in Chicago on October 14, 1990 by the Polish American Congress. You surprised and touched everyone by starting your speach: “Wielce Szanowny Panie Prezesie, Drodzy Rodacy, jestem bardzo zaszczycony wyroznieniem za zaproszeniem na te uroczystosc”... You reminded the audience about Kosciuszko, Pulaski, battles of Westerplatte, Narwik, Tobruk, Monte Cassino and the Battle of Britain You said you stopped talking Polish when leaving home at age 17 for college, but are still able to speak it – like you nicely described “jezykiem swoich pradziadow” (the language of your great-grandparents)
D.J.K. - Yes, when I received the award in Chicago in 1990, during the ceremony everyone spoke English, sometimes with difficulty. I gave my acceptance speech in Polish. Of course, I was prepared for it and read it, but the reaction was wonderful – I received a standing ovation. The Polish people were so touched that one of America’s senior 4-star generals would speak in their language.
A.Z-B. - Did your parents cultivate traditional Polish food, celebrations and holidays? Were you familiar with some great Polish –American names like Pulaski and Kosciuszko? Tell me more about your brother and sister.
D.J.K. - We enjoyed Polish food, and we knew about Pulaski and Kosciuszko holidays. We all had a great pride in being Polish. When we heard Polish jokes – it didn’t bother us. We were totally sure of ourselves. And we took the fact that others could kid us openly and directly about our heritage as recognition of their acceptance as being one of them, There were jokes, but not cruel jokes, about many nationalities. Today, one would not dare to do so with certain races, religions, or beliefs; I believe it is an indication of strong and damaging divisions in American society which we Poles did not and do not now experience.
We moved to different houses, but always stayed in the Polish neighborhood. Our family kept very close.
My younger brother Francis Anthony now lives in Houston; he has a PhD in Neurophysiology. He was a NASA scientist and has a Japanese wife born in Brazil named Massako, who also has a PhD in Neurophysiology. She works in a Galveston Research Center. The youngest in our family, Antoinette, is an artist and lives in the Chicago area. She was a high school art teacher. Her husband Norman Lorvig is a private detective and is a highly decorated ex-police officer.
A.Z-B. - Tell me please about your school and university years?
D.J.K. - In my grammar school there were many Polish, Italian and German origin children. I remember Billy Tyminski, my best friend from those days.
Later, I attended Lane Tech High School, again with highly ethnic European origins where I was on the swimming team. I learned swimming from my uncle (I told you, we were a very close family and very supportive of each other) who took me to beaches and taught me to swim.
Being on the champion high school swim team in Chicago, I received an athletic assistantship to the University Iowa in Iowa City.
I studied to be a chemical engineer, a somewhat difficult subject. In my second year, I bought a 1941 Ford automobile, and met a beautiful blond named Lucy. My grades plunged and I almost flunked out.
A.Z-B - How did you choose a military career?
D.J.K. - In the middle of that second year at Iowa while visiting my family in Chicago, I met a West Point Cadet at the swimming pool. He impressed me so that I learned that I could ask my Congressman for an appointment to West Point. It was Tom Gordon (who was followed by Dan Rostenkowski) from the 8th district where we were living among many Polish origin people. He recommended me. I was accepted, and starting as a freshman again (without the car and the blond) I kept my good grades until graduation.
The blond, my wife to be (Lucy), stopped her studies and moved to the West Point area. During my last year in college she worked at the Academy. The day after my graduation, I married Lucy. I wish I had kept the car (in addition to the wife, of course). Five years later our first son Dale was born. Later, in Boston, Douglas was born. Dale lives in the Boston area and Douglas in Northern Virginia. Both are married and have children, Dale is in computer science, and Douglas works with military space systems.
A.Z-B. - Tell me about your years after finishing West Point, particularly about your beginning with flying.
D.J.K. - My military life moved us all over the country. I learned to fly in Florida and Oklahoma. I was subsequently assigned to the 33rd Bombardment Squadron, at March Air Force base in California. I served as a B-47 combat crew commander.
A.Z.-B. - You earned an M.S. degree in aeronautics and astronomics from a prestigious university - MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). You were also taught to speak the Russian language at West Point. Did you ever use this skill?
D.J.K. - I learned Russian as a third language, but I never really mastered it. I remember in early 60s when Nikita Khrushchev (Chruszczow) came from Russia and was supposed to visit Disneyland. I was delegated to speak to him in Russian. It was the time of the downing of an American U-2 spy plane over Russia and the visit to Disneyland was canceled. So I didn’t have to use my Russian on him… it might have started WW-III!
A.Z.-B. - What was your career like after graduating from MIT?
D.J.K. - After my first USAF assignment as a B-47 combat crew commander in June 1963, I was assigned to the Aerospace Research Pilot School, Edwards Air Force Base, California, first as a student and then as a staff director training test pilots and astronauts for the U.S. aircraft and space program
A.Z-B - Were you involved in military action in Vietnam”
D.J.K. - During the Vietnam War, from November 1969 to October 1970 I served a combat tour duty with the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand completing 120 missions flying the F-105 tactical fighter.
A.Z-B - I have heard that you named your plane a very special name.
D.J.K. - I named and painted my airplane “The Polish Glider”. I flew from Thailand over Laos, Cambodia and North and South Vietnam, and everywhere my plane carried the name. The enemy, the North Vietnamese, called us “Yankee Air Pirates”. I was known as “The Yankee Air Polack”…and proud of it.
The F105 was the heaviest fighter in the Air Force, and thus the name was tongue-in-cheek humor. I was a fighter pilot, and it was a matter of necessity that one be self deprecating, i.e. “not to brag”.
The plane was admired by all who flew it, had a great combat record and became the best maintained in the Wing. Had I named it “The Heroic Polish Eagle”, or something of that nature, the story would have been much different.
After the war the plane was placed in storage, but was later moved to the British American Air Museum in England. I’d guess the British changed the name thinking it was inappropriate in this day and age.
However, a decade or two ago, Monogram Models made a copy of “The Polish Glider”. It was completely sold out, and it is now a collector’s item.
A.Z.-B. - What was your military and simultaneously scientific career like? Tell me about your work with the various commands you have held, your responsibilities and how you executed them.
D.J.K. - After my return from Southeast Asia, I was assigned to Headquarters U.S. Air Force in Washington, D.C. as a development planner in the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development. Later, after a tour with the Air Force Scientific Advisory, I was assigned as Executive Officer to the Under Secretary of the Air Force.
In 1976, after graduation from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, I was transferred to the Electronic Systems Division, Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, with duty as Assistant Deputy for International Programs.
Then I served as Program Manager for foreign military sales of the E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, later becoming Assistant Program Director to the overall E-3A program. I was appointed Deputy for Surveillance and Control Systems, responsible for the development and acquisition of the sensors and command centers used today by NORAD and the U.S. Space Command in the accomplishment of their worldwide missions.
1n 1982, I became Deputy Commander for the Space Launch and Control System, where I managed the Department of Defense Space Shuttle Program.
Two years later, I was named Director of Space Systems and Command Control, and Communications at Headquarters USAF in Washington, D.C.
In February 1986, I served as a member of the Presidential Commission that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger accident.
In 1986, I was assigned as the 2-star Vice Commander of the Space and Missle Center in Los Angeles. A year later, I was promoted to 3-stars, and was appointed the Commander of Air Force Space Command in Colorado. In 1990, I was promoted to 4-stars and “dual hatted” as the Commander in Chief (CINC) of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and CINC of the United States Space Command.
After 35 years in the military, I retired in 1992.
A.Z.-B. - You wrote a scientific essay about the equipment used in the Persian Gulf War – published in AIR POWER HISTORY (Spring 1999, Vol 46) titled “Indispensable: Space System in the Persian Gulf War”. The article was based on your presentation at the Air Force Historical Foundation’s symposium September 1995 in Washington, D.C.
D.J.K. - The Persian Gulf War in 1991 was the first conflict where space played a major role in support of American land, sea, and air forces. And it marked the first time that combatants, at all levels, felt the presence and effect of our space systems on their missions. Indeed, our space forces were available before the war, during the war, and after the war, because they were already in orbit and the space force structure is used just as much in peacetime as during times of crisis.
A.Z.-B. - What was important in your life and somehow helped you during all those years?
D.J.K. - What helped me in life, I am sure, was being self-confident. It all came to me with my upbringing in a Polish family in Chicago close to my peers and close to my family. Also, it is important to have a good attitude. Having integrity is number one. West Point’s “Duty, Honor, Country” is a pretty good model to follow. I would also add – whenever opportunity knocks on your door… open it!
A.Z.B. - You were a command pilot with more than 5,500 flying hours in 26 different fighters and bombers. Your military decorations and awards include the Defense and Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, and the Air Force Commendation Medal. You also received the National Geographic Society’s General Thomas D.White United States Air Force Space Trophy, the award given to the individuals who have made the most outstanding contribution to the nation’s progress in space.
General, do you like challenge?
D.J.K. - I love challenge, even now being retired. I’ll give you an example. In my career, I didn’t have occasion to ski... I learned not a long ago, and now, living in Colorado Springs, I don’t just ski for recreation, I compete in the Giant Slalom … every run down the mountain is a race against competitors… real or imagined.
A.Z.-B. - What do you think about the war in Vietnam, and the recent war in Iraq?
D.J.K. - In my opinion, war in Vietnam, where I was a tactical fighter pilot, was managed very poorly by politicians. Unlike the first war in Iraq in 1991, that was very successful, in Vietnam our objectives were not clearly defined and we did not take the actions necessary to win, therefore we lost.
We did not make those mistakes in our first war in Iraq. Regarding our second war in Iraq, we fought it exceptionally well but, I believe that during the 1990’s, after the first war had ended, we should have gradually lifted the sanctions, and started trading with the Iraqi people. Trade often leads to constructive dependencies, and precludes conflict.
Witness our relations with Russia and China.
A.Z.-B. You keep yourself very busy settled in a beautiful house in the foothills facing the magnificent views of the Rocky Mountains.
D.J.K. - My wife and I moved 27 times during our career. We are happy to finally live in one place for a change.
Early Family Photo
I like to collect old cars, ski, golf, fish, swim, surf, bike and hunt...
I am employed in a full time job in the commercial satellite business. I travel 40 – 50 trips a year. Because of the Space Shuttle Columbia loss, I have helped various parties related to that incident. I've also competed in a full winter of ski racing. I am not allowed to brag so I would just say it was fun.
The golf season has started, and I'm playing evenings and weekends about four times a week. The fishing season has also begun, and Lucy and I are refurbishing our mountain fishing cabin and fishing for trout.
Our rose garden is flourishing, as are the fungi and insects attacking it. The Trap and Skeet shooting season is in full swing. We've only few months of daily workouts in the gym to get in shape for the next ski season.
The West Point Class of 1957 of which I am President has decided to rewrite their constitution… The political battle is worse than our civil war.
I'm in the middle of helping Television’s Showtime Network make a movie. And, with the mild spring weather, this is the ideal time to continue work on the ten antique (junk) cars we have acquired over the years. All this in addition to the normal hobbies a person would have. I also have a lovely wife to share with, not to mention the world's most wonderful Yorkshire Terrier dog named "Pepper". I am, however, looking for something to do in my spare time
A.Z.-B. - Your 90 year old mother Isabel still lives in Chicago, is very independent and self-reliant and is quite a woman. She told me, she pursued her other interests when she retired – she even was interested in yoga classes.
She also told me, that she admires your positive way of thinking, that you always like the brightest side of everything and liked to stress it. When you were a little boy, you were fascinated by airplanes and that fascination grew bigger with the years. She told me that you used to say – “Reach for the stars”.
Your mother is very proud of you. Many Polish origin people in the U.S., as well as Polish in Poland, can be proud knowing that a 4-star general long ago “reached for the stars”.
D.J.K. - I am happy my Mom knows what I did or did not do, and that’s about all that counts.
The interview was held in English and was authorized by General Kutyna in August 2003.
It appeared in “Weteran” (New York, October 2003), and as a chapter in the book “THE ROOTS ARE POLISH” (second edition 2004) published in Canada under the care and with the support from the Canadian Polish Research Institute in Toronto.
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