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Soldier's heroism recognized nearly 68 years later

June 12th, 2013 8:00 am by Gary B. Gray

Soldier's heroism recognized nearly 68 years later

Charles E. McCoy

On July 7, 1945, U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Charles E. McCoy was aboard a B-29 bombing mission over Akashi, Japan, when his courage and devotion to duty were put to the test.

The young bombardier passed that test.

When that precarious flight was over, brains, brawn, a flashlight and a screwdriver had saved the lives of his pilot and crew. On Monday, nearly 68 years later, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, presented the Johnson City native with the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for Heroism at Munsey United Methodist Church.  

At 89, McCoy is clear-eyed. Sure, the years show. But the reason the Johnson City Press needed to catch him Monday is because he wasn’t about to miss his tee time the following day. He’s a big man, but the emotions after all these years, were detectable from time to time as he related the events of that night long ago.  

“We were youngsters then, and we weren’t afraid of anything,” he said with a grin. “We thought we were invincible, I suppose. It was quite a relief to get home safely. Our crew was lucky. We all survived the war, and I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones. A lot of them didn’t make it back.”

He was a member of the 874th Bombardment Squadron. The plane’s nickname: “Shirley D.”

McCoy distinguished himself near the end of World War II during a bombing run when 20, 500-pound, high-explosive incendiary bombs failed to release from the aft bomb bay. McCoy and the fire control gunner threw off their flak suits, flotation devices and parachute harnesses and entered the open bomb bay.

He was able to wedge himself between the bomb bay racks and the ribs of the aircraft, precariously hanging on to the bomb racks with one hand. While making sure the arming wires remained intact, and with just a flashlight and a screwdriver, he and the control gunner were able to release the bombs by physically pushing them out of the bomb bay.

“That morning when the armor people — the people who load the bombs and ammo — finished the front bomb bay and moved to the back, one of those 500-pounders broke loose from the cables. It killed an airman. Killed him instantly.”

McCoy’s 11-man crew made it over their target that night. He then gave the signal over the intercom: “bombs away.” But he got a call from the aft of the plane that the bombs had not budged.

“So I told  the commander, ‘let’s fly around to the alternate target and toggle them out,’ ” he said. “We did that twice, and they wouldn’t go. At that time, the plane wasn’t pressurized. I crawled through a 35-foot-long tunnel. The only thing we could do now ... I can go back and get ‘Lefty’ and we can toggle them out one at a time.

“So we go back to open up the hatch door and get on a small catwalk. We had to take just about everything off, because you didn’t have much room between the skin of the plane and the bomb racks. So he holds the flashlight while I take a screwdriver and one at a time release the bombs. You’re back there and you’re looking down at black sky. The wind is gushing through, and you’re sort of hanging on for dear life twisting a screwdriver.”

McCoy said the plane and crew could not have made it back safely otherwise. They would have run out of fuel.

“We couldn’t have made it back. Carrying the bombs would have made it too dangerous. We could have tried to land, but that would have jarred the bombs loose and the whole plane would have gone up. As a result, we probably saved a new B-29 — and in World War II dollars, that was $600,000. Plus, we saved the lives of an 11-man crew.”

McCoy had returned from Kansas City, Mo., recently for an annual reunion of WWII vets. At this point in the conversation, a slight quivering of the lip and halted speech appeared.

“It used to be you couldn’t find a hotel and ballroom large enough to take care of us,” he said. “But this year there were a total of 169 people — only 39 of them were veterans. That pretty well tells the story.”

McCoy said he noticed some words scribbled on a piece of paper when he returned home after the reunion, which read, “Call Dr. Roe’s office.”

“Charlie’s commander, who passed away a few months ago first told me about this,” Roe said. “Only three of his original crew are still alive. We started working on this in 2009. There’s no question that he earned this honor. Though he attends a reunion every year, the numbers of those attending continue to shrink. When you read the list of those who have received this award, you’ll see he’s in pretty lofty company.”

The Distinguished Flying Cross was first authorized by Congress in July 1926. The first recipient was Charles Lindbergh, who was a captain in the U.S. Army Corps Reserve. Lindbergh was awarded the medal for his solo flight of 3,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.

McCoy also received a gold “V,” which can be placed on the medal’s ribbon. In military lingo, this is known as an “authorized device.” In this case, it is the signature for valor awarded for heroism.

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