2016-11-12 / Front Page

B-24 gunner recalls WWII combat missions

Veterans Day evokes powerful memories for Saco's George 'Skip' McGahey
Executive Editor

SACO — Sometimes when George "Skip" McGahey of Saco closes his eyes, he can still see his B-24 Liberator aircraft banked into a bomb run over Germany with .30 caliber waist machine guns blazing and the plane's fuselage filled with smoke and exhaust fumes on a perilous World War II combat mission.

McGahey will turn 94 Nov. 27, but vividly recalls his days as a gunner and crew member aboard the bomber known as a "Flying Boxcar" and the effort he was a part of in dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on German military and industrial targets to help liberate Europe and preserve our American freedom.

"I was in the barber's chair getting my hair cut in 1941, when I was 18, when a buddy waiting his turn at the chair suggested that maybe we should join the Army Air Corps, since we both loved airplanes and wanted badly to do our part to help win the war," McGahey said. "The words were hardly out of his mouth before I jumped out of the barber chair, tore the towel from around my neck, threw it on the floor and yelled 'Let's go.'"

He enlisted with the intention of becoming a pilot, but found out that they didn't need pilots at the time. There was a desperate need for gunners on air crews, so that's what McGahey became. It was a decision he's never regretted, but one that required extraordinary courage and bravery.

"Before long, I saw very well where the saying 'gunner today, goner tomorrow' came from, and  believe me, people generally think that bombers didn't come under a lot of fire, but that's not true at all," McGahey said. "Dogfights between fighter planes generally had to do with protecting bombers, because we were destroying German supply routes and munitions factories, and the German fighter planes had the gunner at the door of the bomber as their primary target."

Offical records show SSgt. McGahey as being credited with being a crewman on 29 bombing missions over Germany from 1942-1945 as a door gunner on Army Air Corps B-24 Liberator Bombers. He actually participated in 31 missions, but two were recalled mid-flight before reaching their destinations. 

"The bomber I served on not only dropped tons and tons of bombs on wartime Germany, but was also credited with shooting down six German Luftwaffe FW 190 fighter planes, though we knew there were many more we hit that never made it back to Germany, but we didn't actually see them go down," he said. "There were 10 men on the bomber crew and sometimes we'd come back with as many as five or six killed or severely wounded."

McGahey said their aircraft was hit by enemy fire and flak on just about every mission and getting hit was what the air crews expected.

"We'd always limp home, praying we'd be able to land safely," he said. "By the grace of God, I somehow made it through the 29 missions I flew on, but the horrible things I saw and heard are still very much with me, believe me."

His 579th Squadron was part of the U.S. Army Air Corps' 392nd Bomb Group that was based at  Wendling Air Force Base in England.

Conditions aboard the B-24 were miserable for its crew members as temperatures dropped to 60 degrees below zero while flying at an altitude of 29,000 feet over targets like Schaffhausen, Dernbach, Helmstedt, Gutersloh, and Liege.

Flak bursts filled the sky with deadly shrapnel from exploding shells as SSgt. McGahey stood watch and kept cover as the B-24's two central bomb doors cranked open and crew members dropped up to 8,000 pounds of ordnance onto targets below.

"Time after time, I'd look around me after the firing had died down and the smoke had cleared, and I'd find that I was still alive and I'd be filled with a deep gratitude," McGahey said. "The closest I came was when a shell came so close that it tore the boot off my leg. I brought the boot home as a reminder of how fortunate I was to survive. I can't bear to have it out where I can see it everyday, because it reminds me of all the good men who didn't make it, so I keep it in a closet."

Because the air crews endured such hardship and faced death almost daily together, they developed special bonds forged in the crucible of air combat.  

"Every one of those guys loved life as much as I do, and I ask myself to this day why I made it and they didn't," he said. "Every once in a while I catch sight of the boot when I'm rummaging around looking for something, and a deep sorrow for my lost buddies comes over me, but I'm also overwhelmed with a deep gratitude for being alive."

For his participation in the war, McGahey was awarded the Air Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He was discharged at the war's conclusion in August 1945 and a little more than a year later, he married his sweetheart, Helen, on Aug. 25, 1946. The couple was together almost 60 years before Helen's death in January.

They had five children including Pamela McGahey Cook, Lannie McGahey, Deborah McGahey Gallant, Bruce McGahey and Walter McGahey. Skip drove a tractor trailer truck for Hannaford's to support his family and eventually retired in 1989.

McGahey is among a dwindling group of American heroes still alive to tell what is what like to survive air combat over the skies of Europe and says he's proud of what he did to safeguard liberty for our country and the untold generations to follow.

"My only hope is that people today appreciate this wonderful country and remain aware of why so many good men and women have been willing to give their lives for it," he said. "God Bless America."

— Executive Editor Ed Pierce can be contacted 282-1535, ext. 326 or by email at editor@journaltribune.com.

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