World War II oral history interview
Jerome J. McCabe was in January, 1916 into a Newark, New Jersey family that would eventually include a brother and two sisters. As a child, he was always fascinated with flying. He built balsa wood model planes and considered Charles A. Lindbergh, the first pilot to cross the Atlantic in a solo flight, his hero and role model. McCabe was also an accomplished athlete who competed as a bicycle racer on the U. S. team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
McCabe attended West Point from 1937 to 1940, where he found the academic grind very difficult. His distaste for academic drudgery, coupled with his love of flying and a desire to avoid service in more mundane army branches like the infantry or artillery, led him to write the Secretary of the Army in the fall of 1940 and request permission to leave the military academy and join the Army Air Corps’ Aviation Cadet Program. His request was granted in February 1941. Although he left West Point, McCabe recalled that he always remained in touch with his classmates, down to the day of his oral history interview. His younger brother attended West Point as well, graduated in the class of 1943 and became a B-17 pilot who flew in the European Theatre of Operations during World War II.
McCabe enjoyed his pilot training and was assigned to the Fifty-second Fighter Group at Selfridge Field near Detroit, Michigan. At Selfridge he received further instruction on flying the P-39 Air Cobra fighter. He noted that several pilots were killed during the training period, and blamed their loss on the P-39’s water cooled aircraft engines, a cause, he stated, of mechanical malfunctions. McCabe believed that his training at Selfridge was erratic and inadequate. Although an inexperienced pilot, he was assigned to test fly the then new P-39.
McCabe was sent to South Carolina for additional training in February 1943. He then flew a P-39, escorting a B-17 bomber, to Greenland, fighting wing icing all the way. In Greenland he boarded a troop transport ship to England, where he spent two weeks in Liverpool before moving to a location in Northern Ireland near Londonderry, where he received training in flying the British Spitfire fighter. While in Ireland he met his grandfather, who lived there.
The Fifty-second Fighter Group was attached to the Ninth Air Force. McCabe recalled that the Ninth assigned 300 first lieutenants to accompany Spitfires to Gibraltar in preparation for the invasion of North Africa. As part of that detail, McCabe flew a reassembled aircraft to check its performance, and then joined the Eagle Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force fighting in the skies over Tunisia in April and May 1943. The United States Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force (RAF) functioned as a single unit in North Africa, under the overall command of British Air Marshal Arthur Tedder. Tedder commanded the allied air arm in the Middle East, Malta and Northwest Africa.
The primary mission of allied aircraft in North Africa was to assert dominance of the skies and prevent the Germans from reinforcing their beleaguered forces by either air or sea. On April 22, 1943, the British and Americans shot down twenty German aircraft transporting troops from Italy to Tunisia, and then established fighter patrols designed to shoot down any German planes that took to the air. McCabe recalled that on May 6, 1943, the allies flew over 2100 sorties, including bomber, fighter-bomber and strafing missions on a 6,000 yard front.
McCabe had a high regard for the RAF pilots with whom he flew, and enjoyed listening to their stories, which he found very instructive. He first experienced radar guidance systems while flying Spitfires. He noted that the Spitfires were short range fighters because they did not have a large fuel capacity, limiting their flights’ time to a maximum of one and a half to two hours. McCabe discovered that Spitfire engines would cut out when he flew the aircraft upside down, but when he righted the plane, they would re-start.
In June 1943 McCabe returned to England. That November he was reassigned to the Forty-eighth Fighter Group, located at Ibsley, in the southern part of the country, as a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, and flew a number of missions over occupied Europe escorting B-24, B-25, and B-26 bombers. McCabe noted that his P-47’s ordnance included four .30 caliber machine guns and two 20 millimeter cannons, and that all were accurate and deadly. While flying escort duty, McCabe had a number of combat encounters with German aircraft. He recalled that German fighters were faster in dives, but that his own aircraft could easily outmaneuver them and that after four missions he had developed the confidence to engage enemy planes and prevail. He remembered that deft maneuvering on his part caused one German Me-109 on his tail to crash.
McCabe recalled that he flew a number of escort missions in hazy weather, with his apprehensive 492nd Fighter Squadron following his lead plane, nicknamed “Paper Doll.” The squadron was also assigned to dive-bombing missions, and suffered several pilot losses while McCabe was in command. His operations officer was shot down over France and, contrary to the experience of many other pilots, was treated badly by the French, who even stole his personal property. Once, as the squadron took off, loaded with belly tanks of extra fuel and heavy bombs on a mission to dive-bomb tunnels in France, McCabe glanced in his rear view mirror and saw a plane veer off the runway and explode. The pilot, his best friend, was killed in the accident. At the time of the explosion, McCabe had completed forty-seven missions, and he felt that he had survived due to an extraordinary amount of good luck.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, McCabe flew three missions over Normandy as a squadron commander. His unit was assigned to dive-bomb bridges behind the beachhead. Although the weather was poor and he was worried about locating his objectives, accomplishing the mission and bringing his men home safely, the operation was successful. By then, McCabe considered himself a professional pilot, aware of his capabilities and limitations as well as thoroughly familiar with his equipment. He eventually flew over 100 missions, many as squadron leader of a composite unit that included twelve British and sixteen American P-47s, mostly on dive-bombing assignments.
McCabe’s plane was hit by flak from a German eighty-eight millimeter antiaircraft gun while he was on a dive-bombing assignment near Aachen, Germany in November 1944. Although his aircraft was damaged, he had enough altitude to stay aloft until he could crash-land in Belgium, by then in Allied hands. Although McCabe’s right leg was injured by shrapnel, he recalled that he did not feel any pain because he was so busy manipulating the P-47’s controls. After landing he spent a week in a field hospital in Liege, where he was given an injection to prevent blood poisoning, as well as a number of drugs, including adrenaline. The hospital was hit by a German V-2 rocket while McCabe was there, but he was fortunate enough not to suffer any further injuries.
Jerome McCabe returned home in late November 1944. He lost his records, awards and orders in transit, but they were eventually replaced. The Battle of the Bulge began shortly afterward, causing him to worry about his brother, then still serving in Europe. Feeling a sense of obligation, he personally contacted the families of five young pilots from his squadron who had been lost in combat. In reflecting upon his time overseas, McCabe said he believed that it had changed and hardened him, and that he had been a nicer and more patient person before the war.
Following the conclusion of his interview McCabe displayed photos of his time in the service, including him in Algiers, “Paper Doll” and his ground crew, a composite picture of his squadron’s pilots, including those who had been killed in action, the manor house where he and the pilots lived in England, World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who toured England as a civilian on an inspection tour for the War Department, and other wartime views.
Many years after World War II McCabe visited an American cemetery in France. He recalled that it was beautifully maintained, but that he had a feeling of deep sadness as he walked among the graves of thousands of young American boys who had sacrificed their lives in combat. He reiterated that his personal objective during the war had always been to achieve the combat mission and bring the men of his squadron home safely. When asked about how often he spoke of his war experiences to friends and family, he said he was usually reticent, until he had “a drink to two to help him relax and ‘open up’.”