Flyer: An Album

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Dad training in South Carolina
A recent weekend spent with Dad at a World War II air show was more than a treat. I saw the joy in Dad’s face as he showed children, grandchildren, and a great grandchild the planes that he flew during the war.
Like many children, my siblings and I grew up hearing Dad’s stories of his war years. As a young man, and against his mother’s wishes, Ray wanted to join the war effort, just as his older brother, Bill had done in May of 1940.

Ray had two obstacles to overcome. The first was age. Right after Pearl Harbor, Dad wanted to join the Army Air Force. However, to join he needed both parents’ signatures and his mother refused to sign. Ray had to wait until December 9, 1942 to join.

A very skinny Ray McKenna on a visit
home, with Blacky.

The second obstacle was weight. At 134 pounds, Ray
had to gain five pounds in a week. He also had to have a plate put in where he was missing a tooth. He visited his dentist, Dr. Gorfine (whose office was on the second floor of what is now Venda Ravioli, and just feet from where our family lived beginning by the early 1850’s).

Upon hearing Ray’s story of needing to gain weight, Dr. Gorfine directed Ray to an Italian produce store a few doors down. The doctor sent Ray with a note explaining his weight issue and requesting that they sell him bananas. At a time of food shortages, the store owner kept a supply of bananas under the counter. They gladly accommodated Ray at the exorbitant price of twenty-five cents a pound.

Apparently it worked, because one week later Ray weighted in at 139 pounds and enlisted into the air force.Ray wasn’t the only one with size issues regarding service. Once in, he became friendly with a fellow named Johnny Mack. Hailing from Springfield, Mass, Johnny was a very handsome man. When ever the boys were on leave, they brought Johnny with them into town, knowing that the girls would swarm to him like bees to honey.

But Johnny had a size issue. He was short, very short. Even after getting into the air corps, one still could be washed out at any time, for not weighing enough, or for being to short. To help Johnny, his mates had him hang from the rafters of their bunk house while they pulled on his legs to “stretch” him. A great fellow, sadly he was killed while in training.

Ray’s first stop in the air corps was Atlantic Beach, New Jersey, for basic training.

Ray, second from the left.

That was followed by five months of further training at Lafayette College.

After additional schooling in Tennessee and Mobile, Alabama, Ray was on his way South Carolina to learn to fly.

Ray pointing out where he was stationed at Atlantic Beach.
One of Ray’s stationings was at San Raphael in Marin County, California. (On a personal note, Ray was a runner there. He inspired this fellow to run for most of my life until knees gave out). Ray’s training in San Raphael involved “spins” and other acrobatics. Ray loved Flying upside down and doing rolls. He especially loved the open cockpit. In one flight, his leg froze. There was a few scary moments until he regained use of the leg and landed safely.

At age 88, Ray wanted to jump from a plane, but his doctor would not let him.

Ray tells two very funny stories about his training. One involves a training flight that one of his colleagues took. With his instructor in the rear seat, this young man took off and prepared to do spins, as well as flying upside down. The only thing that held a pilot in a Sterman was a single belt. On this flight, the instructor neglected to secure his belt. When the plane rolled upside down, the instructor was gone. Lucky for him, he opened his parachute in time to land safely.

The red flap, seen just under Ray’s left arm, opened for
the fire extinguisher. It also served Shorty Wilson to
trick youngflyers as he curled up out of sight and
playing trick on them.

The other story that he tells concerns an instructor known as “Shorty” Wilson. As his nickname implies, Wilson was not a tall man. Shorty liked to play practical jokes. One especially, startled flyers in training. A flyer would be in the air when another Sterman would approach. When it was close, the young pilot would realize that an “unmanned” plane was flying close to him. Turning away from the “unmanned” plane, the pilot would see the plane follow with him. Crouched down in the read seat, and looking through a small opening that was the fuel supply line, Shorty could see the pilot, but the pilot could not see him.

Ray was assigned to the Air Transport Command. For the duration of the war, a C54 transport plane became his workplace.

Ray did take one brief break from the war effort. On June 5, 1944, he was home in Providence to wed the love of his life, Dorothy Smalley. They embarked on a short-lived honeymoon to New York. Short-lived, because the next day was D Day and he was called back to base.

July 5, 1944
Ray & Dot in New York City.

 

As soon as Paris was liberated, Ray was there.
The large “tin can” that was the C54 flew below 10,000 feet. Above that altitude, there was insufficient oxygen for the men on board. The plane had an air speed of 180 miles per hour. With insufficient fuel to make the flight in one go, regular stops occurred in Newfoundland and the Azores. From there, he flew to Casablanca, Morocco, and to Paris. Additionally, he flew in and out of Iceland and Greenland.
The young man, who had barely traveled beyond his hometown of Providence, was on his way to Gay Paris!
Ray and his crew mates began a series of runs, bringing in supplies and returning with wounded soldiers, diplomats and sundry cargo. Among the people he ferried were the Moroccan and French delegates to the founding conference for the creation of the United Nations. Among the people Ray remembers transporting was the great Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union.

Landing at Orly was dangerous. While occupied by the Germans, the Americans had bombed the daylights out of the field, leaving it with giant craters.

Perhaps his greatest danger was on a flight across the Atlantic. Flying near the Newfoundland coast, they lost all of their four engines. In no time, they dropped from 8,000 feet to just two hundred feet above the Atlantic Ocean. As the pilot prepared for an emergency landing, the mechanics were at work trying to restart the engines. If they hit the water, they were to die within minutes in the fridgid water that is the North Atlantic. With seconds to spare, mechanics got the engines restarted. The plane and its crew were able to land safely in Newfoundland.

Although they were stories long known, they came to life this past weekend as Ray and his family toured the World War II fete at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum.

Thank you, Dad!

From the outside, the C54 looks huge. Inside, it is quite a small space. With walls seemingly “as thin as paper,” flying in one required some very well insulated clothes.
Life at war had its enjoyable moments. Unfortunately, Ray’s close friend,
Lt. John McDonell of Connecticut, pictured here, died on a bombing
run from England. Taking off from a very foggy coast of England, John’s
plane and another bomber collided, killing all on board both planes.
Ray, on the left, with his mates.
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Ray, at his happiest, in the cockpit of a plane.
Ray, foreground left.

 

Ray, left, with his grandfather, Bernard Bonner
O’Connor, and his older brother, Bill.

 

Dad and a Sterman, like the one he trained on. With him is his great-granddaughter, Kaylin Boschi, son-in-law, Allen Mongeau, grand daughter, Jenn Boschi and son, Tom McKenna.
Dot came to visit Ray when he was stationed at Lafayette College.
Ray, Bill Sr. & Bill Jr.
Those are the clothes Ray wore at high altitude.
Captain Bill Almond, a friend, with Baffin Island children.
Ray’s C54 took him to some unusual places.
Ray is second from the right.

A friend, on the streets of Paris. Note the
cars. In 1972, when I first went to Paris,
those same cars were still prevalent.
Dad and the C54.
The C54 evacuated wounded soldiers. WACs played a key role.
Courtesy Mid-Atlantic Air Museum
Evacuating soldiers. Courtesy Mid-Atlantic Air Museum.

 

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!
Ray Jr., age 7 or 8, wearing his Dad’s uniform.

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