Joe McKenney of Arcadia, Fla. had just graduated from aviation training at Manhattan High School in New York City in 1943 when he enrolled in the Emergency Defense Training Program to become an aviation mechanic.
“I was fortunate to get a job with American Export Airlines in New York. They flew flying boats and I thought it was wonderful working for the airlines,” the 87-year-old former mechanic said. “My eyes weren’t good, so I knew I would never be a pilot. But being a 17-year-old kid working on these great airplanes was the next best thing.
“It wasn’t long before I was on the flight line servicing the planes. It was my job to make sure the airplanes were properly fueled. I also did a visual inspection of each plane and signed off on them in the log book,” McKenney explained. “When I turned 18 I was able to get my airplane mechanic’s license. That gave me a lot more responsibility.
“When I turned 19 I was drafted. I went down for my physical and flunked it. I was 4-F. I was so humiliated being left out of the war,” he recalled 70 years later. “A few months after that the Air Force called me back and asked, ‘Would I be willing to join the Air Lift Command and go to North Africa?’ ”
McKenney was delighted.
He was issued a uniform and got a couple of weeks training in the workings of a C-54, “Skymaster,” four engine transport plane. Then he was sent as a member of a crew to Casablanca, Morocco in North Africa.
“The flight to North Africa in a C-54 was interesting in itself. We had to extend the range of the plane so we installed two extra 400 gallon gas tanks. We flew from Newfoundland to the Azores and on to Casablanca,” he said. “It was a long trip and the pilots were no more experienced that I was. We were all ’90-Day Wonders.’
“It was the spring of 1945 and I arrived in Casablanca about the time the Germans surrendered. Because there was still a war going on with Japan there was a lot of traffic going through the airport at Casablanca. Allied planes flew out of there across North Africa to the Middle East on their way to China,” McKinney explained.
“When I arrived I became a line supervisor at the airport. When the C-54s came in I would debrief the crews and take care of any mechanical problems they might have,” he said. “It was my job to supervise the fueling of the airplane and make sure it was ready for the military to load it.
“One of our big jobs at Casablanca was sending wounded solderers home. A plane would come in loaded with wounded on stretchers. It was our job to get that plane serviced and on its way home to the U.S. They always had a wonderful flight nurse aboard the plane,” he said.
“It was a lot of hard work at Casablanca, but everybody rose to the occasion. It didn’t matter what was to be done, it got done. I learned a lot about taking care of myself while I was there.”
Shortly after the Japanese surrendered, in September 1945, McKenney was relocated to a U.S. Air Force Base in Bovington, England where he took charge of the flight line once more.
“Bovington was a fighter base they were closing down. It broke my heart to see what they were doing to some of those airplanes. They’d wrap a cable around them and put two tractors on either end of the cable and tear them in half. Then they’d bury the halves,” Mc Kenney said.
After he arrived with the Air Lift Command the fighter base was turned into a supply base.
“They left a major in charge of the base. He was a pilot and wanted to get his flight time in for extra pay,” he said. “He told me to maintain a little spotter plane for him so he could get his flight time.”
It was about this time McKenney’s enlistment was up. He decided to reup and stay with what eventually became the Military Air Transportation Service (MATS).
“I ended up in Frankfurt, Germany with the new Air Transport Service. My job was to service the military planes as well as Pan Am civilian airliners. I was there during the ‘Berlin Airlift.’ It was a very exciting time of my life.”
From June 24,1948 until May 12, 1949 the Soviet Union blockaded all of the land routes into Berlin. It was one of the first salvos fired in what would become known as “The Cold War.” The only way the Allies could supply Germany’s capital city was to fly in everything Berliners needed in transport planes.
“Typically the weather was lousy flying into Berlin. We had a number of accidents because pilots of different nationalities were flying these planes,” McKenney said. “They had trouble communicating with ground control due to the language barrier.
“I had my own Berlin experience. A C-54 flew into Frankfurt where I was working and the pilot complained that the heater in his plane would function fine on the ground, but wouldn’t work in the air. He invited me aboard to check it out.
“While I was back at the navigator’s table working on the heater problem with the pilot the co-pilot taxied the plane out and took off. The next thing I knew, I had been kidnapped and was on a plane going to Berlin. The captain wanted me to see that the heater didn’t work in flight.
“I had never seen Berlin before. It was amazing what the Germans had built at their airport. The terminal was a mile-long semi-circular affair. Airplanes taxied right into the terminal under the roof. There was also a subway connection under roof. It was really a futuristic building.”
“But when you walked out of the terminal into the city it was depressing,” McKenney recalled.
“There were no street lights. There were no lights on in any of the homes or business,” he said. “It was just a dead zone. There was nothing there in the way of commerce.
“If I got a couple of days off I would drive down to Switzerland. Once you crossed the border into Switzerland there were always lots of neon lights and things going on at night,” he said.
He stayed with MATS until 1952. Then McKenney got out of the service, came back to the U.S. and went to work for Pan Am in Miami. His title was Airline Maintenance Inspector. He had a staff that maintained Pan Am planes flying into Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and down most of the east coast of South America.
“it was a wonderful job with a lot of responsibility,” McKenney said. “But later I was transferred to General Foreman of the Engine Overhaul Department for Pan Am. I wasn’t happy with what was happening at Pan Am. It was going down hill, so I quit and went to work as an aviation instructor at George T. Baker Aviation School in Miami. I worked there for 11 years until I retired in 1992.”
The follow year he and his wife, Ursula, decided Miami Beach, where they had lived for years, was too crowded. They decided to sell their house and moved to a vacation cottage they had built in Arcadia in 1992.
In the two decades plus they have lived in DeSoto County, McKenney has become active in veterans’ organizations. He is currently the commander of American Legion Post K-11 in Arcadia.
They have three grown children: Bill, Alice and Steve.
Name: Joseph Rutledge McKenney
D.O.B: 12 July 1935
Hometown: Miami, Fla.
Currently: Arcadia, Fla.
Entered Service: 17 May 1935
Unit: Air Lift Command
Commendations: World War II Victory Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Honorable Service Lapel Button
Battles/Campaigns: North Africa Campaign WW II, Occupation forces Germany, Berlin Air Lift
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Dec. 24, 2012 and is republished with permission.
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