He caught a lucky break the day he was inducted into the service.
Some of the recruits at Ft. Sheridan in Illinois were sent to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri — where temperatures were 10 degrees below zero.
It was December in Milwaukee — ten degrees above zero. It was raining and sleeting.
“I’m put on a train to go to Ft. Sheridan, outside of Chicago, to be inducted. They split the group in two, according to the alphabet, I guess. The first half went to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri where it was ten below zero, people got pneumonia and died there.”
“I went to Miami Beach. Stayed at the Sands Hotel on 16th and Collins Avenue. We had our own swimming pool. I was in a fourth-floor room with three other guys,” he said.
McKee trained in Miami Beach until March, then was sent to gunnery school at Laredo Air Force Base in Texas, near the Mexican border.
The men flew in B-24 bombers, at low level, in 110- to 115-degree temperatures.
“You’re back there, in the open air, in the waist (gunner position near middle of plane), so you’re smelling hydraulic fluid and burnt ammunition, and half of the gunners got sick and threw up. I got so airsick there one day I thought I was going to die. Never got sick again after that … I think I was cauterized from the inside out,” he said, laughing.
McKee’s next stop was Rattlesnake Army Air Base in Pyote, Texas, where he trained in B-17 bombers.
“A place never to be forgotten … that is no man’s land. Rattlesnake Army Air Base was a proper name for it because there were rattlesnakes all over the place.”
“After we got through with the B-17 training we were getting crews together to get used to flying together. They thought so much of me they sent me to Harvard — Harvard, Nebraska,” to a B-29 bomber base at Harvard Army Airfield.
“The B-29 bomber was the only bomber that had an 11-man crew, instead of a 10-man crew because it was the only aircraft that had radar on board,” he said.
McKee was tapped to be the radar man and was sent to Clovis, N.M. for about four weeks where he was trained in radar navigation.
He rejoined his crew in Nebraska and after a few training runs, the men were sent overseas.
In February, 1945 the crew departed from Mather Field in Sacramento, and flew to Saipan, by way of Honolulu, in a brand new B-29, fresh off the production line.
“The two things that I remember from my whole Air Force experience: Flying out over the Golden Gate Bridge, looking out through the blister window and seeing the Golden Gate disappear, and then flying back nine months later — flying over the Golden Gate. I never thought I’d see it again,” he said.
After stopping in Honolulu to refuel, the men flew to Kwajalein Island.
Kwajalein is the largest island in the Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands.
That’s not saying much, though. The island is just 1.2 square miles — 2.5 miles long and an average of about 800 yards wide.
“Kwajalein was so small that they had to pull coral out of both ends of the island from the ocean to make the thing long enough for B-29s to land there. The airstrip was longer than the island.”
From there, they flew directly to Saipan, where they commenced high level bombing attacks on southern Japan, including Tokyo, Nagoya, and Japanese air and naval bases.
The squadron made numerous bombing runs over Nakajima Aircraft Plant, with not-so-great results.
Bombs dropped from 30,000 feet were not hitting the target.
U.S. Army Air Corps Gen. Curtis LeMay decided high-level missions, for which the airplane was designed — what McKee calls “putting a bomb in a pickle barrel” accuracy — was negated by the fact that winds at high altitude were over 225 knots.
“When you open the bomb bay doors and drop your bombs at 30,000 feet or more, the wind disperses those bombs — particularly the incendiary fragmentary bombs. They were lightweight and they’d be all over the landscape.”
LeMay decided to change to low-level, daylight bombing. The bombers would now fly missions at 9,000 to 15,000 feet, which made them more susceptible to ground fire.
“Anti-aircraft fire on all the major cities was very intense, and when you were at low level, it was quite accurate,” McKee said.
Since all the targets were coastal and fairly concentrated, the Japanese could supply a very powerful ground defense.
On April 7, 1945, the target, once again, was Nakajima Aircraft Plant.
The bombs hit their target and military records report the 35-bomber attack achieved, “Excellent results,” but drew “intense and very accurate flak.”
Twenty-nine aircraft were damaged in the enemy air and ground defense barrage, which included 130 fighter attacks.
The No. 1 engine on the left wing of their B-29 was shot out.
“They shut the engine off and extinguished the fire. But as we left the target, we got picked up by anti-aircraft fire and lost our number two engine.”
Both engines on the left side of the aircraft were dead.
“It could ruin your day,” he quips now.
The pilot tried to feather the engine — changing the pitch of the propeller to eliminate drag — but was unsuccessful.
“And because of that, it started to windmill — the longer it ran, the faster it ran. It created vibration in the airplane. We pulled out over the sea and the pilot got the crew ready to bail out. We got all the crew in the back where the radar room was.”
McKee, the only guy still on a mike besides the pilots, waited for word to tell the men when to jump.
“We went farther and farther and farther,” out over the ocean.
The pilot figured if he could get the aircraft out just a little bit further, they could ditch the airplane — and hope and pray a submarine came by later to rescue the crew.
“We hear this conversation between the pilot and flight engineer. They said, ‘Throw out everything in the airplane.’”
Everything that came loose — and everything that wouldn’t come loose was chopped off — was thrown out into the ocean, including ammunition, turrets and flak jackets.
The plane, which dropped its bombs at 12,000 feet, was slowly losing altitude.
The pilot reduced the engine power. Fuel was transferred to balance the load.
“We think we might be able to reach Iwo (Jima). Iwo had just been taken the month before.”
The destination was 600 miles away. The flight took more than three hours.
“We limped all the way to Iwo Jima … at reduced speed, losing altitude all the time. We landed with two engines. We didn’t crash the airplane.”
McKee and one of the gunners was assigned to stay with the plane to wait for replacement engines, while the rest of the crew was flown back to Saipan.
The men were there for eight days.
McKee didn’t sleep the entire time, he said.
At night, the Marines sent up phosphorous flares that turned the sky as bright as daylight.
“We were off in a remote area, each with a .45 revolver. He was in the front of the airplane. I was in the back, waiting there all night, waiting for the Japanese to come out of the caves. The came out at night with rifle grenades anything they could do to create havoc. They had already lost the battle. But they had burrowed that whole island.”
The Japanese never got close to the plane, but McKee was on edge the entire time.
“That was the scariest time I spent in the whole service.”
“We had no food, no water, but the Seabees (construction battalion of the Navy) were at the island.”
“We were adopted by the Seabees,” he said.
The Seabees were camped out quite a ways down a hill below the aircraft. The two crewmen walked down for meals.
“We were walking in sulfur dust. It was a lava island with a sulfur smell and the smell of burnt out ammunition. It smelled and looked like hell. It had no natural water.”
The men were relieved when the parts finally arrived.
“They brought engines and we flew the plane out of there.”
DATE OF BIRTH: Sept. 25, 1925
HOMETOWN: West Bend, Wis.
RESIDENCE: Cathedral City
BRANCH OF SERVICE: U.S. Army Air Corps; 20th Air Force; 73rd Air Wing; 497th Bomb Group
DATES OF SERVICE: December, 1943 – December, 1945; U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve: December, 1945 – December, 1948
RANK: Staff sergeant
FAMILY: Wife Mary Lou; three children, Dennis McKee of Simi Valley, Coleen McKee of Atlanta, and Maureen Hallford of Houston; four stepchildren, Peggy Bellone of Lompoc, Michele Becker of San Diego, John McKay of Henderson, Nev. and Claudia Armijo of Albuquerque; four grandchildren; four great-grandchildren.