CORVALLIS — It’s been more than 70 years since Frank McCauley first stepped into the cockpit of the P-47 Thunderbolt Fighter he named “Rat Racer.”
He can still remember the adrenaline that came with each flight.
“I was never afraid,” said the 97-year-old Hamilton man. “I was eager to get into that plane. I enjoyed every bit of it. I really did.”
McCauley is believed to be the oldest living fighter ace from World War II.
On Monday, he will load into the front seat of a WWII vintage Jeep and lead the 94th annual Corvallis Memorial Day parade.
“I can remember too the first time I went to that parade in 1978,” McCauley said, with a big smile spreading across his face. “They used to have to go around the block twice. It was so short back then.”
This year the parade’s theme is “Celebrate the 95th Birthday of The American Legion,” and it won’t have to make the trip around the block twice. The annual celebration now brings hundreds of people to town to celebrate the holiday of remembrance.
It’s a solemn time for veterans like McCauley who will never forget the loss of friends and fellow airmen during war time.
McCauley flew 46 missions over Germany and France.
He knew men who died when their aircraft malfunctioned during training flights. He knew pilots who didn’t survive battles. And he saw quite a few of the huge B-17s spiral out of the sky after being shot down.
“Every time we lost one of those planes, you knew 10 personnel went with it,” he said. “What was really heartbreaking was that you weren’t able to do anything about it. That was our main job to see that it didn’t happen.”
Raised on a dairy farm in Ohio, McCauley’s infatuation with flying started young, after he watched the owner of his hometown’s hardware store fly his small airplane over fields of corn and grass.
“I tried to convince my dad to put in an airstrip on the farm, but he never did,” McCauley said. “Alfalfa paid more going through a cow than people were willing to pay to land an airplane back in those days.”
When WWII erupted, McCauley initially joined the infantry. At the first chance he had, the young man volunteered to fly with the U.S. Army Air Corps (which would eventually become the Air Force).
He learned to fly in the skies over Texas.
After he graduated from flight school, he was transferred to the East Coast for additional training in a brand-new fighter called the P-47 Thunderbolt.
“We lost several pilots due to malfunctions in those new airplanes,” he said.
From there, he ended up in England where he spent a few months learning to fly in formation and through all types of nasty weather.
In June 1943, McCauley saw his first combat.
“I came away from my first few attempts at hitting the enemy without any claims,” he said. “It was hard to get used to not shooting too soon. You would get excited.”
The 7-ton Thunderbolts were slower than their German counterparts when it came to climbing or turning, but they could outdive them.
So the American pilots were instructed to fly high above the flights of B-17 bombers and wait for their enemy to appear below them.
“I always had the sun at my back when I attacked,” McCauley said.
His first victory came on Aug. 17, 1943, when he and another pilot, Jerry Johnson, shot down the same Messerschmitt Bf 110 during a sortie on the Schweinfurt-Regensburg.
“We each came from a different direction,” he remembered. “Our planes each had eight 50-caliber machine guns. There were 16 guns firing at the same time. That plane just exploded.”
Each pilot was credited with half a kill. McCauley shot one more down that day. Johnson had three.
On Oct. 14, McCauley officially became a fighter ace when he shot down his fifth Messerschmitt after his squadron attacked a dozen enemy planes waiting for the fighters to leave the bombers after running low on fuel.
“We didn’t have near the range that bombers did,” he said.
Despite being low on fuel, the squadron made a 180-degree turn to attack the enemy and drive them off.
“We saved those bombers from being attacked,” he said.
In November, McCauley was sent to a different base to begin training new pilots arriving from the states.
In June 1944, McCauley was testing a fighter by himself over the English Channel when he saw something he would never forget.
“I was able to see the armada going across the English Channel on D-Day,” he said. “You could almost step from one ship to another. Since I was flying without a flight plan, I turned around and went home.”
“That’s something you never forget,” McCauley said. “It was an incredible sight.”
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