Vail Valley’s Mac McMakin was 19 when he piloted a B-24 for 25 bombing missions in World War II
Flyboy reminisces about his life in the skies
Honoring our Veterans
- Sunday: Dave Schneider, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, reflects on his Vietnam War experiences.
- Monday: Mac McMakin, an Eagle resident, flew a B-24 in World War II.
- Tuesday: Coverage from Monday’s Veteran’s Day ceremony at Freedom Park in Edwards. The event starts at 4 p.m.
EAGLE — William “Mac” McMakin piloted his B-24 Liberator through flak and Nazi fighters during 25 World War II bombing missions. He smiles at the question, “Did you think you might not make it back from some of them?”
“Almost all of them!” he says smiling.
McMakin, 96, loves life as only one can who has come so close to losing it so often, and seen others not as lucky.
McMakin grew up in Hinsdale, Illinois, about 18 miles west of Chicago. He was a good kid, curious, inquisitive and fond of Windy City museums, but not exactly an academic overachiever. He spent some of his free time building model planes from balsa wood. Like everyone in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he closely followed the war in Europe with the feeling that America would soon be in it.
Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and McMakin says it snapped him to attention.
“When the Japs attacked, I decided to get busy learning something,” he said. “I performed well enough that the military wanted me.”
He was drafted almost before he finished his last high school class in 1942 and reported for duty in October. His brother Richard, 20 years older, was a pilot after World War I when there were lots of military surplus planes, but very few people who knew how to fly then.
McMakin wanted to fly more than anything and to fly the B-24 Liberator.
“That instinct was there because of my older brother,” McMakin said.
The teenaged warrior
The B-24 was big, heavy, was relatively difficult to fly and carried the most bombs — exactly what McMakin wanted. He planned to be an airline pilot after the war, and commercial aircraft would behave much like the B-24. Besides that, it looked good.
“We always had to write down what kind of plane we wanted to fly. I always wrote, ‘Just train me for the B-24,’” McMakin said.
He had to duck and dodge some regulations on his way to the pilot’s seat. His training took him through single- and twin-engine aircraft. The B-24, you’ll notice, has four engines. McMakin’s eyes twinkle and he playfully dodges questions about how he managed that leap. He says only that most guys wanted fighters.
He earned his officer’s commission and his wings in 1943 and shipped out to the war.
He was 19 years old.
“As for interesting experiences, it’s all a vague picture I have tried to forget,” McMakin said.
There was this one time, though.
He spent his first mission in the co-pilot seat before the U.S. Army Air Corps gave him his own B-24 and a 10-man crew.
“My first mission as a co-pilot was, as they say, a piece of cake,” McMakin said. “My second mission and my first crew was not.”
The Normandy Invasion was June 6, 1944. For McMakin’s first mission, June 21, 1944, they bombed Munich. When they landed their plane had 10 flak holes, the largest one a full 2-feet by 4-inches in the vertical tail fin. That was their “piece of cake.”
Two days later, June 23, 1944, McMakin was commanding his own plane and crew on a bombing run to a Nazi airfield in Rheims, France. Flak was heavy and knocked out their No. 2 engine. On the way back they were over the English Channel when a cardboard box thrown from the plane in front of them did in their No. 3 engine.
They were losing altitude and feared they might have to ditch in the channel just short of the White Cliffs of Dover. McMakin’s crew strapped on their Mae Wests (life vests), preparing to hit the water while he kept trying to reach land.
The White Cliffs of Dover were under a thick cloud cover they’d have to fly into if they made land. McMakin broke radio silence to ask for help and advice. A friendly voice told them to hold their heading, bail out the crew, set the plane on autopilot and ditch it into the North Sea.
They had just watched another B-24 ditch in the Channel and break in half. No one survived.
A radar man told him there was an airport just to his right. If he dropped his engines to 500 rpm he might make it.
“We broke out of the clouds and saw the field ahead and on the right,” McMakin said smiling.
The thrill was short-lived. The electric hydraulic backup system was destroyed. The plane had no flaps, no landing gear, and no wheel steering.
And that’s when they ran out of gas.
“As I pushed the throttle forward for power, the engines all quit,” McMakin said smiling and shaking his head.
He dropped the nose for speed, realigned to the runway and set it down on its belly with no flaps, gears or brakes. They blew past the end of the runway, careened over a field and into some trees on the other side. A waiting tanker truck crew soaked them with foam the second they stopped.
The plane’s bottom was destroyed, the high wing tail and engines were strewn around the field and trees. Most of the crew escaped through holes torn in the fuselage. The bombardier was killed when the nose wheel crashed through the bomb bay. McMakin’s ears and fingers were burned, and a couple of crew members were scuffed up. One broke his leg.
“The rest of us were very lucky,” McMakin said.
They got eight days to heal up. “Then we were back in the thick of it,” McMakin said.
Among the minority who made it
McMakin flew 25 more missions. He and his crew bombed factories, railroad yards, and other military targets, some during the day, many at night when they used flares to stay in formation.
V-E Day was May 8, 1945, but for McMakin and so many others, the war was not over. The Air Corps shipped him to California to prepare to invade Japan, an operation that would have cost an estimated 1 million Allied lives and countless Japanese lives. After Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on Japan, the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, and signed their surrender Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri.
“I feel very fortunate to be in the minority that made it through without more severe injuries or death,” McMakin said.
He left the military as soon as he was eligible, he said.
His days in the crosshairs were not quite through. He flew with a commercial carrier that had some military contracts. McMakin flew in Korea and Vietnam. He was shot at during both.
Beginning in 1946, he flew commercial jets seven years for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, then 27 years for Seaboard World Airline, traveling the world with Martha, his wife of 72 years, and their three children before landing in Eagle 13 years ago.
After all that adventure, he says his favorite flying was with Freedom’s Wings, teaching the handicapped and wounded military personnel to fly gliders.
“It’s quiet up there,” he said.