This Veterans Day I had the complete pleasure of spending time with 94-year old, WWII veteran 1Lt Edward Mahoney. Over several hours, he educated me on his former unit, the 376th Heavy Bomb Group, shared incredibly detailed stories of his service, passed on his opinions of everything from rutabaga (read on to see why he hates it) to America’s current foreign policy (he’s not impressed), and was, overall, a wholly charming individual (he started and ended the interview by kissing my hand and paying me a compliment). Due to the meandering nature of our discussion, I’ve arranged the information from the interview by category, rather than by specific questions.
On his decision to join up:
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941, Edward Mahoney was studying Engineering during the day, working nights (7pm-7am) at a hotel, and, he tells me proudly, still maintaining a B+ average. After the bombing, he did “what so many other boys did” and went to the local recruiter to enlist in January of 1942.
On becoming a navigator:
“I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he tells me. After he signed up, they sent him to Kelly Field in San Antonio, TX. There, they told him that his two years of Engineering would make him a perfect navigator. “But I don’t want to be a navigator. I want to be a fighter pilot,” he told them. They pointed and said, “Go stand in that line.” Several months later, he tells me in a wry tone, “I graduated as a navigator.”
On his unit, the 513th Bomb Squadron, 376th Heavy Bomb Group:
The 376th Heavy Bomb Group “worked targets” from a base in North Africa, in present day Libya (near a place you may have heard of called Benghazi). The 376th, a unit made up of B-24 Liberators, each with a 10 man crew, became famous after the “group led the assault on Ploesti, Romania [an oil refinery just outside Bucharest] with maximum effort.” They sustained “heavy losses, about 60 planes.” But, according to Mr. Mahoney, Air Force General Tooey Spaatz said, “If we had lost every plane, it would have been worth it.” The 376th was over the target for 20 minutes and, in that time, the “Germans lost half their oil production,” forcing them to build a synthetic oil refinery near Bratislava, in then Czechoslovakia.
All of this was before 1Lt Mahoney arrived on scene. By the time he showed up, the 376th was bombing targets in “Italy, France, Yugoslavia, and southern Germany – Schweinfurt, Stuttgart, Regensburg, Munich, and Wiener-Neustadt and Graz, Austria, where the Nazi’s Austrian Luftwaffe HQ was located.” Often, he says, they were escorted by the famed Tuskeegee Airmen with their “P-52s and yellow tails,” referring to their planes’ tail markings. He describes them as “superb athletes, feisty,” and “after eight or ten generations of suppression, real anxious to take it out on the enemy.”
On being shot down:
He was part of a mission to bomb an aircraft parts factory in Steyr, Austria, on February 23, 1944. The lead pilot made a mistake, Mahoney tells me. “He panicked, he shouldn’t have been the lead pilot. He pulled out too fast and five planes were lost. I was on plane three.” He bailed out over Yugoslavia. His parachute wouldn’t open. “It opened when I hit the ground.” The impact blew out his left knee and damaged his back. He was captured and would spend the next 15 months in a POW camp near Graz, Austria, before being “overrun” by the Russians, who he says were “very, very well organized,” in 1946.
On being a POW:
He talks about German Strafen- and Arbeitenlager. He says he went into two of them and the smell of “dead and dying, fecal matter, urine, lack of fresh air, was such that I remembered it vividly,” so that it was a long time before he could think about the Germans.
He says he was punched in the back with a rifle butt, bitten by a “German police dog,” and lost 40 lbs. And they were bombed by the U.S., he tells me, shortly after being shot down. He said the Germans didn’t believe they would be bombed but he knew it was going to happen because “we had been briefed on it a few days before.” The original mission to take out the Luftwaffe HQ in Austria had been scrubbed due to weather but then, a few days later, here came the planes. He and the other POWs dove into a sorry excuse for a bomb shelter, a simple “ditch, 5’wide by 3’ deep by 10’ long.” He said he saw the bombs fall, heard a “big explosion,” and then he saw a large safe cartwheeling through the air.
Here he also tells me
about another member of his crew, SSgt Leonard Deranleau, who wrote a book about their experiences. In the book, his copy of which he sent back to Deranleau’s widow when he passed away last year, Deranleau says Mahoney was standing up, shaking his fists, and railing at the planes to “give them hell.” Mahoney says he doesn’t remember this. (I was able to find this memoir, titled Memories of an Arial Gunner and Former P.O.W. #2272, on the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project webpage. “Ed Mahoney” as he is referred to on these pages appears on pg. 86 of the documents and, on pg. 88, Deranleau reports this episode but claims he was yelling, “Give it to ‘em, boys!” You can also see a picture of 1Lt Mahoney, SSgt Deranleau, and the rest of their crew on pg. 25 of 207. You can find the entire memoir at: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.19261/pageturner?ID=pm0001001&page=88.)
After they were freed, the work wasn’t done, of course; the “imperial Japanese Army” still needed to be “stamped out.” But there was a rumor that, if you had been a POW, you didn’t have to go. When it turned out to be true, they felt “such relief.”
On being liberated:
A Colonel, an American fighter pilot, who spoke fluent German and Russian took over the camp after the Russians arrived and put the POWs on B-17s and flew them to France. From there, they were loaded on to trucks and taken to a camp near the port of Le Havre to be shipped back to the U.S. After telling me this, he tells me a story, one of those gems that every veteran likely has up his or her sleeve, about how he and a buddy didn’t like the idea of being shipped out right away so they “took off for Paris” on their own.
Once in Paris, they “walked into COMZ Headquarters,” where they told the stunned personnel there that they had just been freed from a German POW camp and “what are you gonna do for us?” The COMZ staff put them up in the “equivalent of the Waldorf Astoria,” fed them, and gave them money to go to the “commissary for some clothes.” Here he tells me about using some of the French he learned while in the POW camp (he wanted to learn German, as he’d learned some while studying in Mexico City years before but it was “frowned upon” by both the American POWs and the German staff, so they found a man named Jacques to teach them French), repeating several times how they would “changer” the train and then “changer” it again. He seemed to derive such pleasure from repeating that phrase.
When he and his buddy made their way back to the port camp several days later, all cleaned and fed, their fellow POW survivors asked where they had been and what they’d been up to. “We didn’t tell them,” he says, a touch of mischief in his voice.
On his medals:
During part of our conversation, he pulls out a burgundy flight cap. On it is the symbol of the 15th Air Force, which the 376th Bombardment Group belonged to, a tarnished pin in the shape of a B-24, navigator wings, and his medals. First he shows me his Purple Heart and comments that he was “wounded four times, once seriously, but they only gave me one Purple Heart.” Then the Air Medal, POW Medal, and Good Conduct Medal, which he tells me he got for “not screwing up anything.” Then a medal of Caribbean Operations, which he was presented after the war, the European and North Africa Medal, and then the one he tells me is “most important” and which you “won’t see very often,” the Victory in WWII Medal.
On whether he was welcomed home:
“One or two places were nice to me but the rest had their own problems.”
On being called a hero:
“The American military will tell you we have only brave men, men with no fear…that is a great exaggeration. Oh, yes, we were scared….of course we were! I was not a hero. Well, maybe I am, but a hero with a small ‘h.’”
On his feelings about his wartime experience:
“I’m glad it’s over and I wouldn’t ever want to do it again.”
On the most prominent thing the military taught him:
“Patience,” he says. When you’re in a “POW situation,” you’re “anxious as hell for something to happen.” But “fate will play it out. Don’t try to forecast the future. Just take it easy. Cause there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.”
When he came home, he admits to being irritable, “resentful,” hating things and people for “no damn reason at all.” He said he had to “talk myself into being civil to Germans.”
He tells me about his issues with rutabagas. He says the Germans ate a lot of them and, for him, they came to symbolize all things German. Finally, he isn’t clear about when, he is in the grocery store and he says to himself, “Edward, it’s just a little vegetable.” So he bought one, just one, brought it home, cut it up, “boiled it, put a little salt and butter on it, and took one bite.” Only one bite. “I didn’t vomit, but I felt like it,” he says.
Then he tells me about how his VA doc tells him that he should get a German Shepherd to help him finally overcome the fear that was instilled in him when a German police dog bit him twice in the POW camp. Let’s just say, he’s not really onboard with that suggestion.
On whether he would ever return to Germany:
“Unfortunately, yes,” he tells me. He says he was on a flight from Athens to Amsterdam when they had to make an emergency landing in Germany and had a very unpleasant interaction with a border patrol guard. “Thanks, but no thanks,” he says.
On his post-military life:
He asks me if his daughter, Emily, a former co-worker of mine, has told me about his life after the military. When I say no, he proudly begins telling me about coming home and completing his Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering, then earning a Master’s in Engineering from Columbia. He then worked for engineering firms and GE, even ran for Congress in Virginia in 1972. Then, twenty years after earning his first master’s, he earned a second in Economics from the University of Virginia.
On what advice he would give those veterans coming home now:
“Don’t think about the past. Just think about what we can do to cope with the future.”
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