Born in Bowling Green in 1929, Kenneth “Ken” Fleenor graduated from College High School in 1947. He then attended Western Kentucky University, graduating in 1952 with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture and biology.
He was commissioned through the Reserve Officers Training Corps program in January 1952, and was awarded his pilot wings at Bryan Air Force Base, Texas, in May 1953. Following additional training, Fleenor qualified in the F-86 Sabre, and was assigned to McGhee-Tyson Airport just south of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Fleenor’s natural and precise piloting skills brought him a number of important leadership positions in bases in far-flung Japan, where he served as a pilot, assistant flight commander and flight commander with the 39th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, and closer to home in Texas, flight instructor, flight commander and officer in charge of the standardization board at Laredo AFB.
In 1962 he was selected for a brief exchange tour with the Navy in Pensacola, Fla. as a flight instructor where he qualified in the powerful F4 Phantom. Capitalizing on this experience, Fleenor had the distinction of helping to introduce the F-4 fighter-bomber to the Air Force inventory. He was among the first group of Air Force pilots who, in 1963, with borrowed F-4s from the U.S. Navy, established an F-4 combat training center at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. In August 1964 he moved to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., to become the operations officer and squadron commander in the Air Force’s first F-4 wing.
The Phantom was Fleenor’s wartime mount following his 1967 transfer to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, some 300 miles north east of Bangkok, and close to the border of Laos. Ubon was a front-line facility for the USAF, and hundreds of sorties launched from there daily. On Dec. 17, 1967, flying his 87th mission, Fleenor and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) were chasing a MiG fighter at very low level when he was hit by a surface-to-air missile.
In a 2005 interview with AHP historian Ray Buckberry, Fleenor described the incident: “The hit was in the engines and immediately one engine failed. While still under power, we climbed with remaining power until the second engine quit, and when the turbo powered hydraulics failed due to loss of hydraulic fluid, flight controls became useless. The airplane pitched up as the elevator control surface went to the full up position after the loss of hydraulics. At 26,000 feet the airplane went inverted and we punched out.”
Fleenor and Boyer survived the ejection, but were subsequently captured. Fleenor was eventually taken to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison, and was held captive for five and a half years. While Fleenor wouldn’t comment on his time as a POW, others have described the unimaginable conditions of starvation, isolation and torture that was delivered by their Communist captors.
Following his release and repatriation in 1973, he returned to Randolph AFB in Texas, and became the assistant deputy commander for operations. He served in that capacity until August 1974 when he became base commander, a position he held until July 1975 when he assumed the senior position of 12th Flying Training Wing commander. Fleenor was appointed assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, Headquarters Air Training Command, in April 1978. He was promoted to the grade of Brigadier General July 1, 1978.
During his 28-year career, Fleenor amassed more than 5,400 flying hours logged in jet fighters and trainers. He has 184 combat hours. His decorations include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star Medal with oak leaf cluster and “V” device, Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster, Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster, and Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with “V” device and five oak leaf clusters.
After his retirement he worked for the Governor as regional coordinator of the Texans War on Drugs and General Manager of the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Ken served on the board of directors of USAA, USAA Federal Savings Bank, USAA Real Estate Company and the Retama Entertainment Group. He served on the Selma, Texas, City Council (1984-87) and as mayor of Selma (1987-94). He passed away there on December 10, 2010.
General Fleenor was survived by his wife, Anne Elizabeth Read Fleenor; his children, Katherine, John, Patricia, Kerry and Kay, many grandchildren; and three sisters, Martha Gibbs, Patty Day and Joanne Ruff.