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Never Met a Stranger: Remembering "Charlie Mac"

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

By T.W. Burger

Retired businessman, golfer, fisherman, and former bomber pilot Charles M. “Charlie Mac“ McMullen, 98, died at his Athens home early in the morning of Tuesday, July 13.

In early 2015, Charlie sat down for an interview with this writer for an ‘‘I was there“ article for a now-defunct WWII-themed magazine.

The piece was never published, but here it is:

Preface: As it did for so many, World War II happened while Charles “Charlie Mac“ McMullen was making other plans. He had been born on August 19, 1923 in Muscogee County, Ga., near Columbus. He was in high school, having, as he says, a hell of a time. He had a scholarship to play football for the University of Georgia, up in the hill country in Athens. He was aware of the war in Europe, of course. But then came Pearl Harbor, and everything was different.

BURGER: What made you decide it was time to sign up?

MCMULLEN: We were in school. It was the summer of ’42. The war had been on (in the Pacific) for six months, and the country had started drafting the year before. My high school friends said they were going downtown to take the cadet exam. I asked them what that was, and they said “So we can fly.” I liked the idea of flying better than infantry, so I went with the guys and took the test.

BURGER: How did you do?

MCMULLEN: They didn’t tell you anything except whether you passed or not, and I passed. At that point they were fighting hard to get the military together. They knew they needed an air force because they didn’t have one…In fact, at first, the military was training and didn’t even have guns for the trainees, just pieces of wood.

BURGER: Do you think the lack of proper equipment had bad consequences for those troops?

MCMULLEN: Well, those early guys caught a lot of flack in Africa, if I remember correctly. There were a lot of hard times, early in the war.

BURGER: Did you go into the service right away?

MCMULLEN: I was still in high school. I didn’t want to give up football. During the test period they told me to finish high school. So, that’s what I did. Then, in June of 1943, I took the same route as thousands and thousands of other guys; I signed up for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

BURGER: Did you go in as officers?

MCMULLEN: No, we joined as privates. We got the same basic training as everybody else, though our uniforms were slightly different.

BURGER: Were air cadets different in other ways?

MCMULLEN: We were in a cadet program rated above a private and paid us another 25 dollars a month.

BURGER: Where did you do your basic training?

MCMULLEN: They shipped us off to Keesler Field in Mississippi.

BURGER: Keesler was activated in June of 1941, six months before the war officially began for the U.S., and the first recruits arrived that August. So you were in one of the earlier classes. Keesler was not only a basic training center, but a springboard for recruits going into airplane and engine mechanics, aerial gunnery or aviation, is that correct?

MCMULLEN: Yes. I was pretty sure that if I washed out of the early training there they were going to make me a gunner.

BURGER: Keesler is near Biloxi, in southern Mississippi. What was it like down there?

MCMULLEN: It was July and August, and it was unbearably hot. We had PT at 11:30 in the morning. They always made us take our shirts off to do the PT, and we’d be rolling around in the sand and get it all over us. And then they made us put our shirts on with all that sand on us. They did anything they could think of to make us unhappy.

We would come in after working out in that heat and change our shirts to go to the mess hall. The shirts would be soaked. When we came back later and the shirts had dried out, they would be so stiff from all the salt in them that you could lean them against the wall and they would stand there, stiff as a board.

BURGER: Was basic training difficult?

MCMULLEN: I had taken ROTC for two years in high school so I had a little of the training already. Still I wasn’t that gung ho.

BURGER: So, after Keesler, did you start flying?

MCMULLEN: No. They sent us to college. It was Presbyterian College in South Carolina. We called ourselves the Rebel Doodle Dandies, because all of us were Southern except for two Yankees. Those two were always getting into fistfights.

BURGER: The two Yankees; they were getting into fights because they were Yankees?

MCMULLEN: One of them was Italian. The other guy was from the New York area. They were always getting into fights with each other. I don’t know why. They were big guys and they just kept getting on each other’s nerves or something. The rest of us got along great.

BURGER: OK, so they apparently lumped you all together because almost all of you were from Dixie?

MCMULLEN: I think so. We called ourselves the Rebel squadron in basic training. Oh, and we changed all the words to the songs we marched to like Yankee Doodle Dandy, which became Rebel Doodle Dandy.

BURGER: How long were you at the college?

MCMULLEN: Just for one quarter, August through December. It’s where we practiced West Point stuff like eating a square meal and learning to be an officer. They would try to wash you out with the hard training. Do you know what a square meal means?

BURGER: An exaggerated method of “eating at attention,” mostly designed to humiliate and annoy recruits?

MCMULLEN: That’s it.

BURGER: What kind of courses did you have to take while at the college?

MCMULLEN: Basic college courses; English, History, Math. Basic freshman stuff.

BURGER: So, after your time at college, did they start training you to fly?

MCMULLEN: No, not yet. At around Christmastime of 1943, we reported to classification school in Nashville, Tennessee.

BURGER: What happened there?

MCMULLEN: We took a lot of tests. I’m pretty good at taking tests. They were designed to determine if we qualified to be pilots, co-pilots, navigators or bombardiers. I qualified to be a pilot and a bombardier. I didn’t make navigator…I guess I was too stupid.

BURGER: So, finally, you were officially designated by the U.S. government as qualified to be a pilot. It was off to flying school after that?

MCMULLEN: Nope. We were sent to basic flight school in Courtland, Alabama.

BURGER: Courtland Army Airfield only existed for a couple of years toward the end of the war. It is now the Courtland Airport. Is that where they finally taught you how to fly an airplane?

MCMULLEN: No. They called it basic flight school, but what we did was check all the airplanes, fill them with gas, that sort of thing. We never got off the ground. In fact, we didn’t do a damned thing for four months. It was in Courtland that my time as a cadet pilot almost came to a halt.

BURGER: Why? What happened?

MCMULLEN: We got a letter from the government that said we were no longer needed, that we were to be mustered out of the cadets. As you can imagine, there were a lot of really down guys that day.

BURGER: But you all got reprieves?

MCMULLEN: One of our member’s daddy was a congressman. He told the military that they couldn’t just wash us out like that because we were all volunteers and deserved better and so on. Well, it worked. We were all reinstated.

BURGER: Having dodged that bullet, where were you off to next?

MCMULLEN: So they shipped a whole trainload of us out west to Santa Ana, California, for our second round of classifications. A lot of us got washed out then. They washed one guy out for biting his fingernails, if you can imagine.

BURGER: How was the trip out there?

MCMULLEN: It was a three-day train trip full of cadets. We slept sitting up. There was lots of stopping and starting on the train trips I took, of which there were many. Trains were busy during that time, moving men and materiel all over the country.

BURGER: You said you could easily have been washed out, but you were not because they never asked you the right question.

MCMULLEN: Right. I have no sense of smell. I don’t know why or how it happened. It really affects how things taste; when you eat a steak, most of the flavor that comes to you is really based on odor. I don’t get that. Anyway, they used to kid me all the time in the dining hall, getting me to eat things and asking me what it tasted like. I’d tell them and they would just crack up. One day they asked me what ice cream tasted like. I tasted some and said “I don’t know…kind of sweet and cold.” The laughed and thought that was the funniest thing. I asked them, all right, what does it taste like to you? One of them tried it and thought a little and said “You know, you’re right…it tastes sweet and cold.”

But not having a sense of smell probably would have gotten me tossed out, because it could be dangerous in some ways. They tested us for our ability to smell certain gases. I guessed my way through that, mostly, but I passed. Like I said, they never asked me that question.”

BURGER: Did your inability to smell ever become an issue?

MCMULLEN: No, but it’s funny, one time while I was flying a B-17, I told the crew that something was burning. It turned out that the electrical system had burned up somehow, and the plane was running on its batteries. That meant that went the batteries went down, the engines would stop running. Well, I got us turned around, and we had to put the landing gear down manually, but I got us down OK.

BURGER: Did you actually smell the smoke?

MCMULLEN: I don’t know. I must have in some way. The only thing I can think was that I was never a smoker, and everybody else on the crew was. I think the burning irritated me and my crew didn’t react to it because they were smokers. That’s the only thing I can think of.

BURGER: Where is Douglas?

MCMULLEN: Douglas Air Field was a new training base in Arizona, right on the Mexican border, and it was mostly there to train bomber pilots. There were a number of kinds of aircraft assigned there.

BURGER: How did you do?

MCMULLEN: On my first flight I was nervous because I didn’t want to fail. I was more worried about failing than I was about getting killed. I’m a competitor; I don’t like to fail.

BURGER: After your training in the Stearmans, where did you go?

MCMULLEN: They sent me to Bakersfield, (Calif.) and started training us on the UC-78, a twin-engine civilian plane they used to train us for flying bombers.

BURGER: Going to multiple-engine aircraft was your idea?

MCMULLEN: I’d say that nine out of ten of the cadets were trying to become fighter pilots. But I figured my best chance of getting through this thing was in piloting twin-engine aircraft. So, they sent me to Bakersfield.

BURGER: What sort of plane was the UC-78?

MCMULLEN: We called it the “Bamboo Bomber,” among other things. Part of the training in that plane was learning to fly by instruments. That was tough in that plane; they called it the Bamboo Bomber because it was so light. It was susceptible to the least little change in the air currents, and that made it really tough to fly by instrument because the range of error they allowed us was so small. If you came in 20 feet wide of the ‘beam,’ they’d wash you out.

BURGER: You went from the “Bamboo Bomber” to the B-25?

MCMULLEN: Yes. The B-25 was a big deal for me. It was the first twin engine aircraft as far as I know to take off a ship, though it was a very heavy aircraft. I never got to do that.

BURGER: How was the B-25 from your experience?

MCMULLEN: It was a big jump for us, because that was actually designed to be a warplane. I didn’t have any trouble with it. It was a beautiful airplane to fly. It was noisy though. When you were flying it the port engine was right next to you. Some say that a lot of the guys who flew the 25 ended up having problems with their hearing. I have some trouble with that, but I believe I came by it naturally. It runs in my family.

BURGER: Tell us something about the way they tested you.

MCMULLEN: Well, we were blindfolded and told to fly in on the beam, on a broadcast signal. You wore a headset and you basically flew on the sounds you were hearing. If you heard a ‘dah -dit,’ you were too far to one side. If you heard a ‘dit-dah’ you were too far to the other side. If you heard a steady hum, you were on the right heading.

BURGER: Was the flight training extensive?

MCMULLEN: It took about nine months to be a pilot. But then I went to schools to learn different airplanes. One would prepare you for the next. It was all about the numbers of men in the pipeline. It could be too many or too little. It was all about keeping that pipeline full as needed and depending on what was needed by the war effort.

BURGER: Did you have any close calls?

MCMULLEN: Everybody had close calls. I remember one time I was coming in for a landing in a B-25. They have locking throttles because the plane has so much vibration; you have to lock the throttles so the vibration doesn’t change the setting in midflight. Well, you were supposed to come over the landing strip and chop the power so the plane would settle onto the landing strip…only it wouldn’t come. It had been tightened too tight. I looked down, and I shouldn’t have. I heard the co-pilot yelling “Pull up! Pull up!” I did, just in time.

BURGER: Thunderbird Field No. 1 had been a private flying school near Glendale, Arizona for the wealthy before it was taken over by the military. One of the creators of the field was famous actor Jimmy Stewart. Training was provided by Southwest Airways. Was it different from most military fields?

MCMULLEN: It had a pool, a really nice one. The base was unusually nice, because it was essentially built for rich people who like to be comfortable.

BURGER: Was it exciting, flying those big bombers?

MCMULLEN: Well, to be truthful, once I got into four engines, flying was dull.

BURGER: You didn’t like the planes?

MCMULLEN: I didn’t say that. The B-17 was a wonderful airplane. The instructor told us that you can dive down, do anything you want in the 17…you just have to handle it right. Once, after the war, I was driving out in rural Alabama and had to pull over and watch; somebody was using a B-17 as a crop duster. That was something to see.

BURGER: The B-17 was not the last bomber on which you trained, was it?

MCMULLEN: No, we were transferred to Bakersfield for several weeks, then to B-29 school. Now, that’s a really big airplane. Then we were at Roswell from August through October of 1945 and finished B-29 school. We really didn’t do anything, just a few practice runs.

BURGER: You had finished training, then. You were ready to go into action in the Pacific Theater?

MCMULLEN: We had finished training. We had just crewed up and were ready to head over there. But one day we were up on another practice flight when the control tower called on the radio and told us to tune in to the civilian radio station. We did, and the news was saying that the military had dropped a bomb on some city in Japan and totally destroyed it. I heard one of the crew say “shit, there ain’t no bomb that big.” But I knew it was all over. Japan was finished.

Postscript: Charlie Mac was not separated from the Army Air Force but remained in the Reserves for two decades.

“I never had any regrets,” he said. “I wanted to come back to school and I was just dumb enough to think I could come back to the University of Georgia and play football, at 165 pounds. I scrimmaged some, and did fine for the first three weeks, and then everybody and his brother came back from the war, and suddenly there were lots of people out there. There was six weeks of them getting rid of people. If they wanted you out, they’d have a safety get you in the knee and you had to quit. They never did put me in.”

During the Korean war, Charlie said he kept checking his mailbox, figuring he would be called back up for service any day, since the USAF had indicated it was going to need people with his kind of training and experience. It did not happen. He remarked that by that time he had three children to raise.

“By the time Vietnam rolled around, I was just too danged old,” he said.

He did not fly any more, except for a time 25 years after the war, when he and three others bought shares in a Cessna 310.

“One died, one quit, and it just got too expensive,” he said.

He did consider becoming an airline pilot for a time, but it was a point before aviation travel had really taken off, and the chances of landing a job were discouraging.

Charlie Mac wound up getting a degree in education by going to night school in Atlanta. But the pay was not very attractive, so he took a job with GMAC. He retired as a manufacturer’s sales rep. He and his wife Jane raised their three children Athens and became grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents.

T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

President of Marsh Creek Media, he has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”

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