Airlift wing named for Air Guard founder
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When state officials needed someone to head up the newly organized West Virginia Air National Guard in 1947, they picked a decorated bomber pilot who had taken part in some of the most dangerous and important missions of World War II.
Retired Brig. Gen. James Kemp McLaughlin was born in Braxton County in 1918, and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps just in time for the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that dragged the United States into the war.
Sent to England in 1942, he was among the first of thousands of pilots to take part in the massive bombing campaign against Germany, flying behind the controls of a B-17 bomber.
On Saturday, McLaughlin, 95, will attend a special ceremony renaming Charleston's 130th Airlift Wing as the McLaughlin West Virginia Air National Guard Base. Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, state adjutant general, said renaming the air base in McLaughlin's honor is an attempt to shine a light on the history of the West Virginia National Guard.
"[People] need to know the significance of the people who built this organization, and how important this organization is to the defense of this nation," Hoyer said at a press conference announcing the name change on Wednesday. "[The roots of the West Virginia National Guard] go back prior to the formation of the nation. We have a militia unit that was part of the formation of the Continental Army."
On Oct. 14, 1943, McLaughlin was the lead pilot in a 350-plane raid on a German ball-bearing factory in Schweinfurt, Germany. Although a number of planes turned back because of mechanical trouble, about 290 went on to bomb the target, said to produce 75 percent of Germany's supply of vital ball bearings.
The planes hit the factory, but 60 bombers were shot down, and another 120 were damaged. Losses were so heavy the Schweinfurt raid came to be known as "Black Thursday," and almost convinced planners to abandon America's daylight bombing campaign.
They didn't, and on Nov. 16 McLaughlin was sitting as copilot and deputy commander as part of a bomber raid designed to knock out a heavy water facility in Telemark, Norway, part of an Allied plan to keep the Germans from developing an atomic bomb. It was one of several times during the war that McLaughlin might not have come home.
"It was one of the toughest times of my life," McLaughlin recalled.
On the flight to Norway, the skies were clear, and there was no fighter opposition. "It was clear as a bell," McLaughlin said. "You could see for 75 miles."
He said it had just snowed, and as the planes flew over Norway, "It sparkled like a diamond."
But the snowfall made it hard to find the target, a power station at the foot of one of Telemark's highest mountains. While circling to look for the power station, McLaughlin's plane developed engine trouble. Worse still, he was unable to feather the propeller to keep the engine from running away and catching fire.
Eventually, the planes spotted the target. McLaughlin completed his bombing run, but with only three out of four working engines he fell behind the rest of the bombers. He then began the delicate task of trying to nurse the plane back to England without the engine catching fire.
With the prop spinning wildly, the engine turned red-hot, then white, he said. Eventually the prop seized, and the engine cooled down. But then the prop would start to spin again, the engine would heat up until the prop seized, over and over, all the way back home.
McLaughlin said the engine finally burst into flames as the plane was setting down on the runway. The pilot asked if he should try to taxi the plane off the tarmac.
"No, son," McLaughlin replied. "Just set the brakes and let her burn. I don't ever want to see that airplane again."
After the war, McLaughlin returned to West Virginia, where he was tapped to head the new West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Fighter Squadron in Charleston. Initially, the unit would be equipped with P-47 and P-51 fighter planes.
In 1955, the 167th would transfer to Martinsburg, and Charleston would become home to what is now the 130th Airlift Wing.
The transition from lumbering four-engined bombers to nimble single-engine fighters can be tricky for bomber pilots. But McLaughlin had an ace up his sleeve.
"It wasn't that big a switch," he said with a wry grin.
While stationed in England, McLaughlin had made friends with the pilots of the 56th Fighter Group. "I happened to be over there one night talking with their commander, and he was lamenting the fact that there wasn't a radio in his staff car," he said.
McLaughlin said he could probably find a radio, and in exchange the commander gave McLaughlin one of the unit's older airplanes. McLaughlin picked a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter.
"I got checked out on how to start it, and I flew it home," he said. For the next few months, he flew the Thunderbolt all over England, giving him advantage when he was asked to lead a fighter squadron back in West Virginia.
When North Korean soldiers invaded South Korea in June 1950, McLaughlin said he got a call from the Pentagon within days asking if he could send four of the 167th's P-51 Mustangs to California.
"They were calling every National Guard unit in the country," he said. It was one of many times the National Guard proved invaluable to the U.S. military.
"The Air Force had done away with the P-51," McLaughlin said. But he and other National Guard commanders were able to send operational, armed aircraft with gunsights and equipment in time to hold the line in the frantic early weeks of the war.
"This is the best organization this nation has ever had," McLaughlin said. "America can't do without the National Guard."
Reach Rusty Marks at email@example.com or 304-348-1215.