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News From The Past


November 6, 2002

 

 

Oradell Exhibit Looks at the Ace
Behind the Base

By JUSTO BAUTISTA Staff Writer

He was the fighting Irishman from Georgia Tech, by way of Ridgewood, N.J.

Short and skinny, Maj. Thomas "Tommy" McGuire didn't fit the Hollywood stereotype for a World War II fighter ace - a big-screen John Wayne or Van Johnson.

He had bony features, and with a big .45-caliber handgun strapped to his left shoulder, he looked almost comical. But in real life, McGuire had few equals in the air.

By the time he was 24, McGuire, flying the heavily armed, twin-tailed Lockheed P-38 Lightning, had shot down 38 Japanese planes in the South Pacific.

Among U.S. fliers, only one man was better, Maj. Richard Bong, of Poplar, Wis., who would finish the war as America's "ace of aces" with 40 kills.

McGuire, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, was killed in combat over the Philippines on Jan. 7, 1945. Bong, who also was awarded the Medal of Honor, died on Aug. 6, 1945, when the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star jet he was test-flying crashed in California.

"He was gung-ho," Jack Brody, 84, of Passaic, said about McGuire. "He took the war personally."

Brody, a sergeant and operations clerk in McGuire's outfit, the Satan's Angels squadron of the 475th Fighter Group, will be the special guest at a Veterans Day exhibit from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Oradell Borough Hall on Kinderkamack Road.

"This will be one of our biggest displays ever," said Wayne Placek, commanding officer of the Army Air Force Historical Association, which is sponsoring the free, two-day event. "Our purpose is not only historical but educational. We have veterans behind tables who fought in World War II as ball-turret gunners and fighter pilots."

Association members also will wear original flight gear and service uniforms.

In addition to honoring McGuire, the displays will include "Life Behind the Wire: The POW Experience," life on the home front, D-Day, Pearl Harbor, and the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo.

McGuire was born in Ridgewood in his grandparents' home on Heights Road. His father, Thomas McGuire Sr., was president of T.B. McGuire Inc., a Packard car dealership in Ridgewood. When his parents divorced, the young McGuire moved to Sebring, Fla., where he was known as a hot-rodding teenager in a fancy Packard convertible.

"He was one of two high school students who had an automobile and took every corner on two wheels," said Charles Martin, author of "The Last Great Ace: The life and times of Major Thomas B. McGuire Jr."

McGuire dropped out of Georgia Tech in 1941, and enlisted in the Army Air Forces in Ridgewood. He was said to have been inspired by his uncle, Charles Watson of Ridgewood, a fighter pilot who flew with legendary World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker.

McGuire began his flying career with a pursuit group in Alaska and was transferred to the Pacific in 1943, where his nerves of steel and phenomenal shooting eye helped him rack up record kills in a seriers of P-38s he affectionately nicknamed "Pudgy" after his wife, Marilyn. He wrote a textbook on his duels with Japanese Zero fighters, "Combat Tactics in the Southwest Pacific," for the 5th Air Force.

There was nothing glorious about air combat, he said.

"You're alone up there with no one to share your misery when the going's tough or to cheer you when you're riding high," McGuire said. "The fighting is impersonal. You don't get a good look at the enemy pilot. You just know you'd better get him or he'll get you. You make a quick pass or two, and then it's all over, one way or the other."

Brody recalled driving legendary flier Charles Lindbergh around northern New Guinea.

"I didn't have a gun," Brody said. "He didn't have a gun. And the Japanese were in the hills."

The lowly sergeant said he did not talk much to Lindbergh, who had come to the Pacific to develop long-range techniques for the P-38.

"He was like God," Brody said.

Lindbergh's presence in the combat theater apparently was known to only a few top officers in Washington. "The air force sent him out to show guys how to fly longer, more economically," Brody said. "He [Lindbergh] came back one day [from a flight]. He had quite a bit of fuel left in the tank. Other guys were almost empty."

McGuire idolized Lindbergh and the feeling was mutual. Lindbergh even went on a combat mission with the group.

"He [Lindbergh] did shoot down a Jap Zero," Brody said. "He wasn't supposed to be in combat. They had conniptions in Washington when they found out about it."

McGuire was killed when his plane went into a stall and crashed as he tried to protect a wingman from a Japanese fighter. His plane crashed in thick jungle on Los Negros Island in the Philippines. His body was not found until 1949, Placek said. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Ridgewood never forgot its native son.

In 1982, Dr. Anthony Cipriano, a village dentist, and Gerald DeSimone, a businessman, led a fund drive for a memorial at the Air Force base in Wrightstown named for McGuire.

"We had tremendous support, from people all over New Jersey," Cipriano said. "We were surprised at all the letters we got. We got many donations. We got many anecdotes from people who crossed McGuire's path. I was just amazed."

One of the biggest supporters, said Cipriano, was Lindbergh's wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

"Mrs. Lindbergh remembered McGuire being mentioned many times by Charles Lindbergh, who was fascinated by McGuire," Cipriano said.

Cipriano recalled the special Medal of Honor ceremony held for McGuire in May 1946 in Paterson.

"Lindbergh drove from Connecticut to Paterson," Cipriano said. "He stood quietly in the audience."

Brody was in the audience, too.

"I was proud," he said.

Justo Bautista's e-mail address is bautista@northjersey.com

 

 

2002, by North Jersey Media Group
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