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Dec. 2, 2020

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Vancouver veteran reflects on flying 50 combat missions during WWII

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:
4 Photos
Harold McCarty, who flew 50 combat missions on a B-24 Liberator 75 years ago during World War II, has a model and print of the heavy bomber in his apartment at the Van Mall Retirement Community. Below, McCarty earned these decorations for his wartime service.
Harold McCarty, who flew 50 combat missions on a B-24 Liberator 75 years ago during World War II, has a model and print of the heavy bomber in his apartment at the Van Mall Retirement Community. Below, McCarty earned these decorations for his wartime service. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The brown notebook is small and nondescript but full of one man’s observations from 75 years ago.

Harold “Mac” McCarty flew 50 missions as a waist, or mid-plane, gunner aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber based in southern Italy that hit enemy targets across southern and central Europe during World War II.

Beginning with his second mission, McCarty jotted down brief notes as he and other members of the 449th Bomb Group’s Flying Horsemen helped to slowly pound Germany and its allies into submission.

McCarty’s entry from his eighth mission recounted attacking enemy troop concentrations in Bologna, Italy, with “frags,” short for fragmentation bombs, and incendiaries.

His brief accounts offer detached observations of a mission’s highlights, including snippets about the weather and assessments of bombing accuracy, without delving into deeper questions about the morality of war and the terrible price paid by so many.

Did you know?

  • Beginning in 1919, Nov. 11 was celebrated as Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.
  • Congress passed a resolution in 1926 calling for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 officially became a national holiday in 1938.
  • Congress enacted legislation in 1954 changing the holiday’s name to Veterans Day to recognize all who had served in the armed forces.
  • For seven years during the 1970s, Veterans Day was celebrated on the fourth Monday in October before the holiday reverted to Nov. 11 in 1978.

The passage of time had dulled some memories from a perilous conflict that raged across the world’s far reaches for six bloody years. McCarty isn’t sure why he stopped writing in his small journal after his 45th mission when he had only five more bombing runs before he could ship home.

“Just got tired of writing about it, I guess,” he said from his room at the Van Mall Retirement Community.

McCarty paused to scan a black-and-white photo of his bomber crew and gently pointed to himself in the back row.

“They are all gone now,” he said of his wartime crew mates. “I don’t think there’s any of them left.”

Today, on Veterans Day, the nation honors all American veterans, living and dead, for their service and sacrifice.

McCarty is one of 18 million living American veterans, but he also belongs to a much smaller group.

About 485,000 World War II veterans are still alive, and the group is rapidly shrinking. Nearly 350 World War II veterans die every day.

Like many of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II, McCarty’s wartime story is not packed with incredible heroism in the face of overwhelming adversity. Rather it is about quiet determination to do his duty and return home in one piece to raise a family and enjoy a peaceful life.

McCarty has been blessed with a long life. In September, he turned 100 and joined another small group. According to the 2010 Census, only 17 of every 100,000 Americans are 100 and older.

McCarty attributes his long life to “good clean living and enjoying life,” although his living wasn’t always so clean.

“I never drank,” he said, “but I smoked a lot of cigarettes.”

“Longevity is in the family,” said Pat McCarty, a Woodland resident and the oldest of McCarty’s three sons and one daughter, all of whom live in Southwest Washington. “He had a sister who lived to be 103, and he wants to beat her by one day.”

McCarty was born in Billings, Mont., and moved to Wenatchee as a young boy. The family struggled during the Great Depression, which started when McCarty was 10.

“We were poor,” he said. “My dad worked on WPA (the Depression-era Works Progress Administration) and died young with pneumonia.”

McCarty himself joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, another Depression program for unmarried young men who were put to work planting trees, building trails, fighting fires and working on environmental projects.

Food was plentiful. The work was hard and anything but glamorous.

“It was just labor and work, pick and shovel,” he said. “I got $30 a month and sent $25 home. … It left me enough for smoking tobacco.”

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, changed everything. His older brother quickly signed up for military service while McCarty went to work in the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver.

He knew it was only a matter of time before the draft board came calling, so he enlisted in hopes of securing a specialty assignment. Possibly because of his shipyard experience, he was sent to the combat engineers, a position he quickly grew to dislike.

“If you weren’t marching or practicing all the time, you would be digging holes and filling them in,” he said. “I just didn’t want to stay in the combat engineers. They worked you to death in there.”

That led to his transfer to the U.S. Army Air Forces and his assignment to aerial gunnery school in Harlingen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, about 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico.

“Everyone told me I was crazy,” said McCarty, who, like many Americans at the time, had never flown in a plane. “They told me if you go into that air corps, the kill rate was pretty high.”

McCarty said he never thought much about dying and wasn’t scared when he got into an airplane for the first time in Texas.

“I just wanted to fly,” he said. “I don’t know why.”

The Racy Tomato

Following aerial gunnery training, where he learned everything there is to know about handling a machine gun, McCarty was sent to the 718th Squadron of the 449th Bomb Group. The group was based in Grottaglie, near the top of the heel of Italy’s boot shape.

He was assigned to a crew that flew a B-24 bomber called the “Racy Tomato.” The plane featured distinctive nose art of a scantily clad woman on roller skates, more humorous caricature than pinup bombshell.

The plane, manned by a different crew, later would drop out of formation and begin returning to base before vanishing into the Adriatic Sea, along with its nine occupants.

McCarty said he went on his first mission only a couple of days after arriving in Italy. The Racy Tomato drew lots of flak, or anti-aircraft fire, on his first combat flight.

The missions were long, often eight hours or more, as bombers hammered targets in Italy, Romania, Hungary, France, Austria, Germany and what was then Yugoslavia.

Unlike the B-29 Superfortress, which came into service toward the end of the war and was used to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the B-24 Liberator did not have a pressurized cabin. Crewmen wore oxygen masks and heated flight suits as temperatures plunged well below zero during high-altitude flights, many of which went over or around the Alps.

McCarty said during his 50 missions, the only time he fired his machine gun was to test it at the beginning of each flight. That’s partly because formations of B-24s sometimes were accompanied by P-51 Mustangs to handle any German fighters that approached the heavy bombers.

“You would see those Messerschmitts,” he said, referring to the German planes. “They would see the P-51s, and they would head the other way.”

Flak was far more common — and unsettling.

“There were these damn flak guns everywhere,” he said. “You could see those damn flak shells right outside your window.”

The Racy Tomato got hit by small pieces of shrapnel that left holes in its wings and fuselage, but it was never enough to knock out one of its four engines or do any major damage, at least when McCarty’s crew was on board. Missions still were scary, especially on takeoff when the plane was loaded with 7,000 pounds of bombs and brimming with high-octane aviation fuel.

“I thought it was a nice plane, a good plane,” McCarty said. “B-17s got a lot of the glory during World War II, but B-24s did their share.”

Others have not been so complimentary of the plane’s attributes. Some dubbed it “the flying coffin,” a description that McCarty pinned to B-17 crews.

“They called our plane that because they liked their plane,” he said.

The Racy Tomato was shared with other flight crews, so McCarty and his crew mates had down time between missions.

“We found something to do,” he said. “They had some pretty girls over there.”

After McCarty completed his 50th mission, one of mechanics was envious that he would be heading home.

“He said, ‘I sure as hell wish I could home with you,’ ” McCarty said. “I said, ‘Well, sign your name up and fly these missions and you can.’ ”

McCarty flew from the 449th Bomb Group’s base to Naples, Italy, where he had the option of taking a plane or ship back to the United States.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to fly; I’ll take a boat,’ ” he said.

After arriving in New York, he traveled cross-country by train to Vancouver. He married his wife, Joyce, in 1945, and the couple had their first child in 1946. They were married for 71 years until Joyce died from liver cancer three years ago.

McCarty spent 34 years working for the U.S. Postal Service. He was based in an office for many years before taking a rural delivery route. His spare time was devoted to his family and his two recreational passions, fishing and golf, along with playing poker.

A man who flew 50 combat missions in Europe didn’t step on a plane again for 45 years when he took a short flight to Reno, Nev., in 1990. The next time he flew was in late summer 2001, when he traveled to Washington, D.C., and returned home only two days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Kathy Baker, a Battle Ground resident and McCarty’s only daughter, said her father seldom talked about his wartime service while she was growing up.

“I just don’t like to talk too much about it,” he confirmed. “I hardly ever think about it anymore.”

The closest McCarty has come to drawing attention to his service was having license plates on his Dodge sedan that proclaimed: WW II – B-24.

He is part of the Greatest Generation, the description former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw used to describe Americans who grew up during the hard years of the Great Depression, prevailed in the world’s most violent conflict and came home to build a powerful economy and robust middle class.

“That’s what I’m supposed to be part of,” McCarty said nonchalantly. “I guess you could call it that.”

“I don’t feel like I was a hero,” he said. “I was just doing my job.”

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