Pierce L. McLennan, 88
War zone: Pacific
Years of service: 1944-47
Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal, Presidential Unit Citation
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
At age 16, Pierce L. McLennan figured he knew all he needed to know as far as book learning went. So he quit McKinley High School.
Inspired by an uncle who worked as a boat captain on the Great Lakes, McLennan headed to the Lake Carriers Office in downtown Buffalo and got his paperwork in order for employment on a steam-powered lake freighter.
“I thought it would be a great adventure for a 16-year-old. I went to Cleveland, Chicago and Duluth, all the cities on the Great Lakes,” he recalls.
In time, the thrill wore off. Quitting school had been a mistake.
But this was not the time to resume his education. Uncle Sam needed him for World War II.
“After I was sworn in to the Army at the Old Post Office, there was this guy sitting in the corner. He was recruiting for the paratroopers,” McLennan says. “He was dressed in these shiny boots, and his pants were like blouses. He looked real fine, and I decided to volunteer as a paratrooper.”
By late spring 1945, McLennan was heading to Manila Bay in the Philippines to become a member of the Army’s 11th Airborne Division, which was training for the anticipated invasion of Japan.
“We were going to jump into Japan for the invasion, but then President Truman dropped the atom bombs and the war ended,” McLennan says.
He expressed gratitude for that decision, for it avoided what promised to be a bloody battle on the Japanese homeland.
“They would not have given up. They would have fought to the end,” McLennan says. “They couldn’t surrender.”
But McLennan, it turned out, faced his most dangerous moments a couple of years later on American soil.
He and other paratroopers were rolling down the runway at Pope Field, N.C., inside a C-119 Flying Boxcar transport plane on a training jump. One of the two engines started to sputter.
“It sounded like the engine in a car missing, not running smoothly. Many of us thought something was wrong. We said, ‘Jeez, that sounds like hell,’ ” he remembers. “But the pilot must have figured it was OK. We were about 10 feet off the ground at about 150 mph when there was a big explosion and the pilot tried to set the plane back down.
“But he had run out of runway, and we were racing across this grassy field and he was trying to stop the plane. Just before he stopped, there was this 10-foot-deep gully out there, and as the plane stopped, the nose dropped into the hole.
“The Boxcar tipped forward, with the tail end of the plane sticking up about 10 feet. There was black smoke and flames, and everyone was trying to get to the rear doors.
“Each of us had about 50 pounds of equipment on us, and we were trying to climb up and out of the back doors. It was panic time. Some of the guys were screaming and yelling, ‘Get me out of here!’ We were slipping and sliding on the floor. It sounds like a Charlie Chaplin movie.”
Amazingly, everyone got out safely.
The Army never released news of the accident, he said.
“There was no acknowledgment anywhere that this accident had happened. When you think about it, how close did we come to being burned alive? I went back the next day and took a photograph of the plane that I still have.”
Of the 42 paratroopers involved in the accident, about 20 quit and were transferred to infantry outfits.
“The rest of us were told we needed to go up the same day and jump,” McLennan says.
Any fright that McLennan might have had from the harrowing experience drifted away as he safely parachuted to earth later that afternoon, he says. “I was a lucky guy.”
Such events, he says, create a bond among paratroopers.
In 1981, McLennan says, he and 10 other former paratroopers formed the Niagara Frontier Airborne Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division Association, carrying on a tradition of “a real band of brothers.”
To celebrate his 60th birthday, McLennan said, he revisited his daring past by making a parachute jump.
“We went up about 2,200 feet and jumped,” he says. “It was a thrill. Oh, Lord, did it bring back memories!”
And, he says, he may not be finished with parachuting:
“I’m thinking of doing a jump on my 90th birthday – July 14, 2016.”