On June 2, 1943, Kinnick was on a routine training flight from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-16), which was off the coast of Venezuela in the Gulf of Paria. Kinnick had been flying for over an hour when his F4F Wildcat developed an oil leak so serious that he could neither reach land nor the Lexington, whose flight deck was in any case crowded with planes preparing for launch. Kinnick followed standard military procedure and executed an emergency landing in the water, but died in the process. Rescue boats arrived on the scene a mere eight minutes later, but they found only an oil slick. His body was never recovered. Nile Kinnick was the first Heisman Trophy winner to die; he was a month and seven days away from his 25th birthday.
Iowa sportscaster Tait Cummins said, "Kinnick proved one thing, that college athletics could be beautiful. Everything that can be said that is good about college athletics he was. He didn't represent it...he was it."
In a letter to Kinnick's parents, Kinnick's lieutenant commander, Paul Buie, wrote, "Having lost all oil the engine, without lubrication, failed, forcing Nile to land in the water." Kinnick's squadron mate, Bill Reiter, also confirmed that the oil leak was so bad that Kinnick was forced to land four miles before he could reach the Lexington. This varies slightly from the often-repeated legend that Kinnick could have made it back to the ship but instead chose to land in the water to spare the ship's crew from danger. While Kinnick gave his life for his country, the decision to land his plane in the water was standard military procedure, and a landing on the Lexington, given his situation, was an impossibility, not a deliberately bypassed option.
There is also some uncertainty about exactly how Kinnick died. Reiter was the only person who claimed to have seen Kinnick clear of the plane and motionless in the water. Reiter died three months later in the Battle of Wake Island, which would have been Kinnick's first military mission had he lived.
Since Kinnick's body was never found, it is possible that Kinnick was still tethered to the plane. Dick Tosaw, whose brother played high school football with Kinnick, has repeatedly pursued the idea of finding and salvaging Kinnick's plane, and making a monument at Kinnick Stadium or at Adel-DeSoto-Minburn High School. But the possibility, however remote, that Kinnick's body is still with the plane led to overwhelming opposition to Tosaw's efforts. Nile Kinnick Sr. opposed the idea, saying that it would be like digging up his son's grave. Kinnick's teammates were also unanimously opposed to the idea. Such strong opposition from Kinnick's teammates, relatives, and fans scuttled Tosaw's plans.
Read more about this topic: Nile Kinnick
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