Many people only know about World War II from what they see in documentaries and in the classroom. Few people alive today actually know what it was like to be in combat or to be in harm’s way.
But Commander John McCue was there amid all the chaos of the Pacific Front during the war. He flew multiple flights as a fighter pilot for the United States Navy and found himself in danger regularly. At one point he was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery over the Phillipines and was lucky enough to be rescued.
McCue told that story and numerous others to an engaged audience at West Coast Ammo in Temecula on Saturday, Aug. 16. The presentation was organized by the World War II Experience, a non-profit organization that seeks to tell the story of veterans who fought in the war. The presentations are organized by Linda Dudik, PhD.
McCue started his journey to become a fighter pilot in the early ‘40s when he entered pre-flight school at the University of Georgia in Athens. At the time there were only five pre-flight schools in the country that could prepare a person to become a fighter pilot for the Navy, according to Dudik.
Prior to this time McCue was in Civilian Pilot Training (CPT), a government program that was instituted with the stated purpose of getting more Americans into aviation. However, many historians believe the program was designed in order to ensure military preparedness in case the U.S. went to war.
McCue continually went to the Navy recruiter and asked when he would get called up to go to pre-flight school and eventually got his wish; he was sent among a group of 25 cadets to Georgia where he would go through a rigorous schedule of classes and exercise before he would, “earn his wings.”
But McCue did eventually earn his wings in 1942 after many hard months of flight time at flight school in Hutchinson, Kansas and intermediate training in Corpus Christi, Texas.
From there he went on to operational training in Daytona, Florida and the Great Lakes, where he learned to land on aircraft carriers. At this point McCue was unsure whether he would be a fighter pilot or not, but he fondly remembered his time at the Great Lakes.
“That was the icing on the cake,” he said. “When you had it made, you had it made.”
Eventually he did become a fighter pilot and would end up flying a Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat, considered one of the most successful ship-based fighters during WWll. His job was to protect the dive bombers and torpedo bombers in his air group during aerial combat, according to Dudik.
He flew many flights as a pilot but one day faced the “nightmare” no pilot wanted to face. While flying over Luzon, an island in the Philippines, McCue would be hit by anti-aircraft ammunition.
“There was an oil splatter on the windshield and I thought someone in front of me had gotten knicked,” McCue said. “And about that time five gallons of oil hit the windshield, and I thought, ‘Oh, geez, it’s me. I’ve got to get out of here.’”
McCue did what he could. He made a water landing and got into one of the available rafts that had been on the plane until he could get rescued by a submarine. While most people would have been in a state of consternation and panic, McCue decided to take a nap until he could be brought onto the sub.
But in spite of those scarier memories, McCue remembers lots of successes. He was among the group of pilots that facilitated the sinking of the Musashi, an imperial class Japanese battleship, in 1944. The ship was attacked by aircraft from the fleet carriers Essex and Lexington.
John remembers that the people in his air group were rewarded with two cans of beer each and a photo of the sinking ship, as this was considered a major victory for American forces in the Pacific.
Not many people know or understand what it was like to be in the military during WWII, but John still remembers that experience vividly. He still keeps his logbook of flights from when he was a Navy pilot and still remembers those first times in the air.