SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. --
The history of the 4th Fighter Wing includes many stories of great wingmen, including the incomparable team of Don Gentile and John Godfrey in World War II. By adjusting their tactics and working closely together in the air combat duels over Europe, they became two of the highest scoring American aces of the Second World War.
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series of commentaries by the 4th Fighter Wing Historian to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the 4th Fighter Wing.
But an event occurred in March 1945 in which a wingman risked court-martial, imprisonment and even death to rescue the pilot he was assigned to cover. Remarkably, that wingman had almost been thrown out of the 4th Fighter Group multiple times by the very same pilot he would ultimately save.
Pierce McKennon displayed considerable musical talent as a young man. His mother wanted him to be a classical concert pianist. He actually received a music scholarship to the University of Arkansas. But despite his ability to play the piano, McKennon wanted to be a fighter pilot.
Fellow 4th Fighter Group fighter ace James Goodson described “Mac” McKennon’s piano playing impact on the Group, “He could always transform gloom, fear and grief into relaxation, happiness and hope. Our warmest memories of Debden were those precious evenings, each of which could have been our last, with Mac, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, pounding away till the beer in his mug perched on the piano was slopping over the top.”
Because of his leadership, skill and 19 kills, Maj. McKennon was given command of the 335th Fighter Squadron. One of McKennon’s greatest leadership challenges was what to do with Lt. George Green. McKennon grounded Green four times for infractions that included damaging his plane and borrowing the commanding officer’s jeep without permission. On at least eight occasions McKennon had threatened to toss Green out of the squadron.
Green was a talented and aggressive pilot so McKennon decided to give him another chance. In an attempt to instill squadron discipline in him, McKennon made Green his own wingman. On March 18, 1945, McKennon realized making Green his wingman may have been the best decision of his entire life.
That day McKennon, call sign “Horseback,” led the squadron in an assault on the Prenzlau Airdrome which was about 40 miles from Berlin. The flak was so heavy that McKennon radioed all the pilots to check their airplanes for damage. McKennon’s own P-51 Mustang had been hit and his gauge was registering zero oil pressure. He had to bail out. McKennon saw a small field and ejected at 4,000 feet.
Green and the other 24 pilots in the squadron watched McKennon safely parachute to earth. Green decided to do something that had never been done by a P-51 Mustang and was strictly forbidden by regulations. Green, McKennon’s wingman, would attempt to land his plane and rescue his commanding officer. As he made his landing approach Green saw German soldiers racing toward McKennon. He yelled to strafe the Germans.The other pilots did so.
Green landed and McKennon sprinted to the plane. Green tossed away as much gear as he could including his dinghy, life preserver and parachute. McKennon also tossed his chute. If they had to bail out on the way home, they were doomed. If they had to ditch in the channel, they would likely drown in the rough seas. McKennon released the wing fuel tanks to lighten the load.
McKennon sat on the bottom because he was more than six feet tall. Green would sit on his lap and fly the plane. A Mustang cockpit is a tight squeeze for one so the two men were really jammed in there. With the short field, Green barely got the plane in the air. The pilots overhead roared their approval, with one yelling, “I’ve sure as hell seen everything now!”
Green gasped, “God, we’re going to get home!”
McKennon radioed, “Horseback is airborne again. Okay fellas, form up and let’s go home.”
On the way home they had to fly at 18,000 feet because of the weather. At that altitude an oxygen mask is essential, and they only had Green’s mask. Green noticed that McKennon had passed out from lack of oxygen. He used his mask to revive McKennon. The rest of the way they shared Green’s oxygen mask.
When they arrived at Debden, Green radioed the tower and said, “Clear the runway.”
The tower replied, “Is this an emergency landing?”
Green responded, “I guess so, we’ve got two pilots in this kite.”
“You wha-a-at?” asked the tower.
Green said, “Come on, landing instructions – for two.”
Sometime after that a general at headquarters was asked why they never court-martialed Green. His response was, “Yeah! I heard that story, but everyone knows it’s impossible for two pilots to get into a P-51 cockpit.” I don’t think anyone was anxious to court-martial a pilot for risking his life to save a fellow pilot.
No one ever recorded McKennon’s thoughts about being rescued by his errant wingman. When Green was asked why he did what he did he replied, “I figured I owed the guy a favor.” That “favor” was one of the greatest episodes of dedication and sacrifice in the history of the 4th Fighter Wing.