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World War II: Major Thomas McGuire

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World War II: Major Thomas McGuire

Major Thomas McGuire as a cadet.

Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Thomas McGuire - Early Life & Career:

Born at Ridgewood, NJ on August 1, 1920, Thomas McGuire was the son of Thomas and Polly McGuire. Following his parents' divorce when he was a small boy, McGuire moved to Sebring, FL with his mother. Raised in central Florida, McGuire graduated from Sebring High School and enrolled at Georgia Tech in 1938. Always interested in aviation, McGuire left school after his junior year in 1941, and enlisted in the US Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet. Ordered to Corsicana, TX, he began flight school later that year. While training in Texas, he met his future wife Marilynn Geisler.

Thomas McGuire - World War II:

Completing training at Randolph Field, TX, McGuire received his wings and was promoted to lieutenant in February 1942. As US involvement in World War II had recently begun, McGuire was dispatched to Alaska where he flew the notorious P-39 Airacobra. Conducting patrols over the Aleutians, McGuire soon grew bored and began requesting transfers to more active fronts where he could see combat. In late 1942, his request was granted and he was ordered to Harding Field, LA. While there, he married Marilynn in December 1942.

In February 1943, McGuire was moved to Orange County Airport, CA, to begin transitioning to the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Soon mastering the big, twin-engine fighter, he was sent to the South Pacific as a member of the 5th Air Force's 49th Fighter Group in March 1943. Flying with the 49th, McGuire met Richard Bong, one of the US Army Air Force's best pilots. Remaining with the 49th through July, McGuire failed to down any Japanese aircraft. That month he was transferred to the 431st Fighter Squadron which was part of the 475th Fighter Group.

A special project of Lieutenant General George Kenney, the 475th was intended to an elite group comprised exclusively of squadrons equipped with the P-38. Initially based at Port Moresby, New Guinea, McGuire, who relentlessly studied his aircraft, was made the assistant engineering officer for the 431st. On August 18, 1943, McGuire flew his first combat mission with the unit. Flying top cover for bombers en route to strike Wewak, New Guinea, McGuire and his squadron encountered several Japanese fighters near the target area. Engaging, McGuire officially shot down two Ki-43 Oscars and a Ki-61 Tony.

During the fight, he apparently downed a fourth, but it could not be confirmed. A fifth potential kill was lost on a coin flip with another pilot. Returning to action two days later, McGuire downed two more Oscars, making him an ace after only two missions with his new squadron. On October 17, McGuire was nearly killed after attacking a formation of seven Japanese A6M Zeros which were pursuing a damaged P-38. After quickly downing three of the enemy fighters, his aircraft was severely damaged and he was forced to bail out.

In attempting to exit the P-38, his parachute caught on something in the cockpit and he struggled to free himself as the plane fell from 12,000 to 5,000 feet. Finally getting free, he landed in the water and was rescued by an American PT boat. During the engagement he suffered several injuries and ultimately received a Silver Star and Purple Heart. After six weeks of recovery, McGuire returned to active flight status. Promoted to captain, he downed three Aichi D3A Val dive bombers on December 26, running his kill total to 16.

Over the next five months, McGuire endured a long drought, but was given command of the 431st in May 1944. Based at Hollandia, New Guinea, McGuire returned to the score sheet on May 16, when he downed an Oscar near Noemfoer. He continued to increase his total through the year, was promoted to major in May, and spent much of the summer working with noted aviator Charles Lindbergh. The famous flyer arrived at the 475th in June 1944, as a civilian contractor to assess and recommend improvements in the P-38. Flying several unauthorized missions as McGuire's wingman, Lindbergh bunked with him at Biak.

Authoring a book on combat tactics which was used by the 5th Air Force, McGuire and the 431st moved north to the Philippines after the landings on Leyte in October 1944. On December 25-26, 1944, he downed seven Japanese aircraft in two days during heavy combat over Luzon. These victories raised his total to 38, just two behind top American ace Major Richard Bong. For this accomplishment, he was ultimately awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Thomas McGuire - Final Mission:

On January 7, 1945, McGuire departed base with three other P-38s to conduct a low-level fighter sweep over Negros Island. Flying with two 160-gallon drop tanks, the P-38s of McGuire's flight encountered a lone Oscar flown by veteran instructor pilot Warrant Officer Akira Sugimoto. Ordering his flight to keep their drop tanks as they would be needed to complete the sweep, McGuire moved to engage. Sugimoto attacked two of the American flight before finding himself behind McGuire and his wingman.

Turning hard to draw Sugimoto onto his tail and off his wingman, McGuire's P-38 stalled at an altitude of 300 ft. as he executed the maneuver. Snap-rolling into an inverted position, his P-38 pitched down and slammed into the ground. McGuire was killed instantly at impact. Many pilots felt that McGuire's order to keep their drop tanks, which was against standard operating orders, contributed to the stall and his subsequent death.

Despite his death, McGuire finished the war and the second-highest scoring ace in American service. For his accomplishments during the war, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (posthumously), the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star (2 Oak Leaf Clusters), Distinguished Flying Cross (5 Oak Leaf Clusters), Purple Heart (2 Oak Leaf Clusters), and the Air Medal (15 Oak Leaf Clusters). In addition, McGuire Air Force Base in his native New Jersey was named in his honor in January 1948.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Biographies
  5. Air Force
  6. World War II Aviation Leaders & Aces
  7. Thomas McGuire - World War II Ace Thomas McGuire

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