Kinnick finished his first year of law school third in a class of 103, then enlisted in the Naval Air Corps Reserve. He was called to active duty three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. "May God give me the courage and ability to so conduct myself in every situation that my country, my family and my friends will be proud of me," he wrote in one of the black notebooks he kept as a record of his war service.
The words, thousands of them, that he wrote on those lined pages serve as a vivid testimony of what might have been. They reveal a much more complicated and vulnerable man than the ail-American boy he seemed to be. On these pages, he is sometimes a man in pain. Conditions in the South, which he witnessed while undergoing flight training in Florida, appalled him. "The inequities in human relationships are many," he wrote, "but the lot of the Negro is one of the worst...kicked from pillar to post, condemned, cussed, ridiculed, accorded no respect, permitted no sense of human dignity. What can be done I don't know.... When this war is over the problem is apt to be more difficult than ever. May wisdom, justice, brotherly love guide our steps to the right solution."
Despite the rigors of flight school, he read and wrote with the prodigious energy of a man racing to fulfill himself. "Finished Sandburg's Prairie Years on Lincoln. Want to get started on War Years soon...." "Picked up a biography of Mr. Churchill just recently written by Philip Guedalla. Read it straight through...." "Finished St. Exup�ry's book Wind, Sand and Stars...." "Did some Science reading for an hour and a half. Read more in Pringle's biography of Theodore Roosevelt...." "Finished Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath...." "Started reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, the greatest novel ever written. It is 1350 pages long...." These entries were all made between May 21 and July 22, 1942. War and Peace took him a few weeks.
He somehow found time to go to the movies—Mrs. Miniver was a favorite, The Maltese Falcon was not—and to the theater. He was enraptured by a Marian Anderson performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. "Miss Anderson was dressed in a beautiful, full-length velvet gown of quiet green with a splash of silver extending diagonally across the front from waist to hem.... Her powerful heartfelt rendition of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child was marvelous. I could hear the moan and wail of the Negro soul echoing through the centuries.... The perfection of her tone and interpretation swelled out over her listeners and we all closed our eyes and felt as if we were in church."
He listed his favorite swing records: Elmer's Tune, Moonlight Cocktail, Blues in the Night, Chattanooga Choo-Choo. And he, who had scarcely a free night in college for dating, in his diary sounded very much like the young man he was. "I must admit that there is nothing I enjoy more than the companionship of a beautiful woman who also possesses breeding, grace, charm and wit. There have been a few such women in my life but not enough.... I shall not consider my mortal existence complete until I have loved and won a woman who commands my admiration and respect in every way. It looks as if it will be some time before that comes about."
Kinnick, self-assured boy wonder, was, his diaries disclose, afflicted on occasion with a nagging self-doubt. "More than once in the past few months, speeches that I have made have come to mind. It is strange that what I considered then as a pretty good talk now seems naive, unimpressive, possessing little merit. Sometimes I momentarily feel embarrassed—I wonder what others thought. Would it all have been better unsaid?" "Feel kind of low today. Used to worry about getting into a field of life endeavor that would be sure to press my capabilities. Now I am wondering whether I didn't have a rather exalted idea of the extent of those capabilities."
The final entries, in the spring of 1943, are pithy, hurried, epigrammatic, the words, prophetically, of a man who seemed to be running out of time. "Yesterday's gardenias...." "It is a real mistake to try to be head man in everything you attempt...." "Freedom another name for hunger?..." "sans culotte...." "Tolstoy claims there is no such thing as chance or genius...." "How I wish I could sing and play the piano...." And, on June 1, 1943, the last entry: "People must come before profits." The rest of the pages are blank.
On June 2, at 8:30 a.m., Nile Kinnick took off in a Grumman F4F Wildcat Navy fighter plane on a routine training flight from the deck of the carrier U.S.S.
, which was then sailing in the Gulf of Paria in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela. Shortly before 10 a.m., another pilot, Ensign Bill Reiter, noticed that Kin-nick's plane had an oil leak. He warned him of thetrouble by radio and started to follow him back to the ship. About four miles from the carrier, the leak became much more serious. Kinnick could not land on the
without endangering other planes on the deck, so he elected to ditch in the water.
"He was calm and efficient throughout and made a perfect wheels-up landing in the water," Reiter wrote the Kinnick family. Reiter saw Kinnick in the water free of the plane, so he flew back to the carrier to direct the rescue craft. When the vessels reached the crash site, there was no trace of either plane or pilot. Nile Kinnick was five weeks short of his 25th birthday. His brother Ben, born 13 months after him, died 15 months later as a Marine pilot shot down over the Pacific. Their father, Nile Sr., now a vigorous 94, has outlived his two elder sons by 43 years.
The face on the coin tossed by officials at the start of every Big Ten game is Nile Kinnick's. The Iowa football team, a true Big Ten power now, plays in Nile Kinnick Stadium. In the lobby of the Ironmen Inn on the outskirts of Iowa City, there is a giant oil reproduction of the photograph of Kinnick scoring the winning touchdown against Notre Dame. Portraits of all the Ironmen are there. Kinnick, photographed in a frazzled practice jersey, looks, with his cropped sandy hair, wide eyes and dimpled chin, to be no more than 15 years old. There is a sort of shrine to Kinnick in the players' lounge downstairs from the football offices on campus. Another picture of the winning touchdown run against Notre Dame is there also, and so, in a glass case, are the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell Award. By pressing a button below this trophy case, a visitor can hear Kinnick's recorded voice accepting the Heisman. It is a firm, confident voice, a voice older than the man. His number 24 has been retired. Two books have been written about Kinnick and the Ironmen—Kinnick, The Man and the Legend by D.W. Stump and The Iron-men by Scott M. Fisher.