WORLD WAR II Experiences affect veteran's outlook
Fewer than 4 million of his fellow soldiers are still alive.
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Willard "Mac" McLain's story of survival after his bomber was shot down over occupied France is like the plot of a movie, a five-month journey of intrigue and danger, avoiding the murderous Nazi Gestapo while moving secretly through an underground network of French resistance fighters.
As America observes the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II this month, the 83-year-old McLain is among a dwindling number of men and women still around to tell the tales.
When McLain visits the VA hospital in Tampa, veterans of the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Gulf War seem to outnumber the World War II guys now.
"We're disappearing," he said.
Of the 16.1 million Americans who served during the war, fewer than 4 million are still alive. With the youngest of them in their late 70s, they're dying off at a rate of about 1,000 a day.
Fulfilling a duty
McLain, then a 21-year-old Colorado ranch worker, was drafted in July 1942 but enlisted in the Army Air Corps hoping to be an airplane mechanic instead of a foot soldier.
He ended up as a ball turret gunner in a B-17 bomber squadron based in central England. His job involved folding his 5-foot-9 frame into a near fetal position inside the ball turret that rotated in the belly of the aircraft, then blasting away at attacking German fighters with a pair of .50-caliber machine guns.
"We were a bunch of green farm kids, most of us," McLain says of his crew mates on the plane, nicknamed "Black Ghost." "I barely knew where England was."
They flew in daylight bombing raids on Germany and occupied France, terrifying flights depicted in movies such as "Twelve O'Clock High" and "Memphis Belle."
Two out of three young men -- their average age was 20 -- who flew on those missions did not survive the war.
Fighting to survive
The "Black Ghost" and its crew survived 13 missions, but anti-aircraft flak and the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters claimed the airplane Sept. 6, 1943.
With the damaged bomber kept aloft by just one of its four engines, pilot Ralph Pulcipher ordered the crew to bail out. McLain jumped from 10,000 feet. A German fighter circled his parachute, the pilot waving at him before peeling off.
He hid in a forest while Nazi spotter planes circled overhead. The next day, he approached a farmer and, despite the language barrier, learned that the man knew someone in the Underground, the resistance movement.
During the next few months, McLain moved from the home of one family to another in the Underground. He moved among Nazi soldiers who might have shot him if they had known his identity.
From Paris he got a train to the south of France, where in January 1944 he found himself among 62 aviators -- American, British, Canadian and Australian -- sent to smugglers who were paid to take them across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain.
They traveled only at night. On the third night, the smugglers disappeared, and the airmen trudged into a Spanish town -- where they were immediately thrown in prison.
Within days, they were taken to Gibraltar and sent back to London. McLain returned to the States, where he trained other men to fly B-17 missions.
All 10 of the "Black Ghost" crew men survived, although six of them were captured and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp. They held reunions over the years, but only three are still alive.
McLain says his experiences in the war gave him perspective that still serves him well.
"I think it impacted my philosophy of life to the point that I consider life dear," he says, "and I take it day by day."