December 10, 2013
By David Hayes
B-25 gunner Ed McKee kept the skies clear on WWII European bombing missions
In 1937, Ed McKee was a sophomore in high school, with not enough spending money in his pockets to spread around his hometown of Albany, Ore.
Just seven years later, how he chose to augment his income would eventually take him over the skies of Europe on bombing raids of Axis targets.
Almost more amazing than McKee’s journey to Italy and back, from gunner aboard B-25 missions to regional jewelry salesman, is the 91-year-old’s steel trap of a memory. From his current Timber Ridge home in Talus, where he’s lived the past three years with his rescued wiener dog Samantha, McKee shared his tale, dropping more names than Frank Langella (whose memoir was, after all, titled “Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them”). The fact the people associated with the names mean little to anyone beyond McKee doesn’t diminish his amazing recall.
To make extra money
The World War II veteran’s tale actually begins five years after he and two or three friends joined the Oregon National Guard to make a little extra money. When things got hot in Europe, his unit was mobilized.
“Once the war started, I was in for the duration,” McKee said.
His first assignment was on coastal duty. After a Japanese sub was spotted in the waters off the shores of Santa Barbara, Calif., McKee said the government wanted to prevent similar incursions into the Pacific Northwest. He would man the huge guns protecting the coast from Fort Stevens on the Oregon side of the border and from Fort Columbia and Fort Canby from the Washington side.
“Those guns were never fired once in anger,” McKee recalled. “It was very boring.”
After applying for paratrooper school, McKee’s next assignment came through the Air Corps, where he would go to aircraft mechanic school, learning to shoot the big guns on the B-26 as an engineer gunner.
He had to leave his wife, high-school sweetheart Betty, behind. In fact, he missed the birth of their first child Mike while he was away at flight school.
It wasn’t long after that he’d soon be flying missions out of Italy.
To help supplement the account of his career, McKee turns the pages of a memory book any museum would pine for. McKee filled its pages with personal snapshots, aerial military photographs and original copies of V-mails and Western Union telegraphs.
Of particular note in his memory book are his diary entries recounting each of the 23 missions he flew. The first was aboard a B-26 Martin Marauder, the target a railroad bridge near Piazolla in northern Italy. The rest of the missions were then aboard the B-25 Billy Mitchell.
In both, while the plane’s bombardier mission was to sight targets on the ground, McKee’s mission was to sight enemy aircraft. His station was manning a 50-caliber machine gun within the tight quarters of the turret atop the aircraft.
Often, McKee’s entries were concise descriptions, filled with a surprising amount of unsuccessful bombing runs or, even if they were successful, the routine of the mission sounding almost mundane.
Mission No. 9 was his first run across the border of Yugoslavia on Nov. 17, 1944, to take out a railroad bridge in Obidesca. What ended up just another “milk run,” or uneventful mission, was interrupted by unexpected guests.
“P-51 escorts from the Balkin A.F. joined us at the I.P.,” he wrote in his diary. “The P-51s scared us as we weren’t expecting them and they came in as if to make a pass. We were all pretty trigger happy and it’s lucky we identified them when we did, for we all had our sites on them.”
A milk run got particularly hairy, however, when his crew flew out Dec. 10 to bomb a railroad bridge at San Michele, northern Italy, or mission No. 17 in his journal.
“Mission number 17 was probably my hottest mission,” McKee said. “We really got into it with enemy fighters.”
McKee’s emotions were easy to read between the lines in his diary.
“Very hot mission. We encountered 15 ME 109s (German fighter planes) about 5 minutes before the I.P. They shot down #60 with Stephens, Hermans, Gosney, Pizofferato, Stodghill and Smith in it. I saw two chutes and the plane go down in flames. We got five fighters and maybe a probable. Throop shot down one 109 and saw him go down. #52 was shot up pretty bad through the rudder with 20mm’s and all over with 30 caliber. We cabbaged the bridge and got a little heavy inaccurate flak. We had to salvo one bomb on return trip as it hung up over the target,” McKee wrote.
The mission’s excitement, however, was not limited to the air.
“After we landed,” he continued writing, “Hultgren reached for his tail guns to clear them and one gun went off. He fell to the ground and I went to help him. We thought he was dead as he was unconscious for about 5 minutes. He came out of it ok except for a few powder burns on his face. The mission was successful but no one feels very good now. It’s hard to get over Steve; I hope he got out ok.”
McKee said he is often asked if it was scary for him while out on missions like these.
“I tell them we were too busy to be scared,” he said. “But once we got back to the base and sitting in the lounge, that’s when jitters set in, and we realized what a close call we had.”
Closure and the jewelry business
Six decades later, a name from that entry, Stephens, would resurface. McKee received an email from Larry Stephens from Cleveland, Okla. His father Royce was the co-pilot in airplane No. 60 that was shot down. Stephens had never met his father, McKee said, and wanted to know whatever he could from another crewmember from the ill-fated mission. Being from another plane’s flight crew, McKee knew Royce more by reputation as a fine pilot, having crossed paths in training. He added he was pleased to be able to give the younger Stephens a little closure.
McKee’s own tenure in Europe ended early. Most crews are required to fly 40 missions before shipping back stateside. The 319th Bombardment Group, the most decorated medium-range group he was assigned to, had been in the European theater longest. The Army brought all assigned home at once, regardless how long individual members had served there.
McKee finished his active duty time quietly stateside. The next phase of his life’s journey evolved from watch parts salesman to owning his own jewelry business.
McKee went on to outlive most of his immediate family — his son Mike died at age 39 of leukemia; son Greg died at age 34 of lung cancer; and his wife died just short of what would have been their 65th anniversary (the two had amicably split, but never divorced, years earlier). McKee still has two daughters, Katie, who lives in Bellevue, and Laurie, a resident of Atlanta.
These days, McKee keeps busy with programs offered in the Timber Ridge community, surfing about on his computer, which he admits knowing not much about, and spending time outside the apartment’s confines with someone other than his dog Samantha.
“I do have a lady friend here,” McKee said with a twinkle in his eye. “We gotta get out, now and then.”