During his first semester at the University of Illinois, John M. Senneff envisioned himself one day designing flying machines.
He later fulfilled that goal, helping build engines at Bell Aerospace that lifted America’s lunar modules off the surface of the moon when astronauts began their long journeys back to earth.
But with World War II raging during his freshman year and a burning desire to learn to fly, Senneff delayed pursuit of his aeronautical engineering degree.
The Army Air Corps happily accommodated him, and he soon was flying the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane, equipped with four 50-caliber machine guns on each wing and, beneath each wing, an array of bombs.
Senneff flew 74 missions over Italy, France and Germany.
“We started out in Pisa. Our dormitory was at the University of Pisa, and every day that I flew, I would see the leaning Tower of Pisa and hope that nobody would knock it over. But you’d get the feeling that you hoped that someone would straighten it,” he said.
A member of the 86th Fighter-Bomber Group’s 525th Squadron, he said he and fellow pilots sought to inflict as much havoc on the enemy as they possibly could.
“We were flying very close to the front lines most of the time. We’d get a report of a German headquarters, and we’d try to get rid of it. Or there would be an advancement of a German army, and we’d go in and bomb and strafe that area.
“If one of our American outfits was trying to advance, we’d go in and try and clear the area ahead of them so that they wouldn’t get into too much trouble.”
One of the squadron’s specialties was bombing trains and railroad bridges.
“The Germans moved a lot of the heavy equipment by railroad,” Senneff said, adding his favorite target was locomotive steam engines.
“When the Germans heard us coming, they’d try and cap the engines so that attention would not be drawn to them. When you hit one of them with eight 50-caliber guns going off at the same time, it did a very nice job. There was quite a blast of steam and it was very satisfying.”
John M. Senneff, 92
Hometown: Moline, Ill.
Residence: Town of Tonawanda
Branch: Army Air Corps
Rank: 1st lieutenant
War zone: World War II, European Theater
Years of service: Enlisted 1942-1945; Air Force Reserves, 1945-1965, retired as a lieutenant colonel.
Most prominent honors: Air Medal with 4 oak leaf clusters; Distinguished Flying Cross, European Theater Medal
Specialty: Fighter pilot
Such satisfaction came with risks.
“The unfortunate part of that was that most of the trains had flak cars. They’d open the sides of those cars and start shooting at you. Quite often, some of our planes would get hit. Out of my 74 missions, I counted being hit by flak 13 times, but I always got home.”
And though the enemy was eager to knock him out of the sky, Senneff said he maintained a sense of compassion. He refused to fire on German soldiers he spotted running for cover. Unless of course, he said, “they stopped to shoot at you.”
After returning from a mission above Bologna in northern Italy, where the sky had been thick with flak, he discovered new meaning in the term flying by the seat of your pants.
“The squadron operations officer nosed around my plane to see what kind damage there was. He noticed a hole that went in one side of the plane, right under my seat, and out the other side. That was a little disconcerting.”
In flying missions above Germany, he and his colleagues again encountered intense anti-aircraft fire.
“Germany was pretty heavily defended, and some of the Germans were pretty good marksmen. A plane I was flying over Germany was so damaged that it had to be scrapped. That had also happened to me in Italy. You couldn’t do field repairs on them anymore, but they salvaged the usable parts. Nothing salvaged went to waste.”
But there was one aspect of the war that could not be salvaged, and that was the loss of life.
“I lost my best friend, Sam McArthur, who I’d gone to flight school with. On his second mission, he went right straight into the ground. Whether he was hit with flak, none of us really ever found out. He was killed right away,” Senneff said.
Countering that sad memory, Senneff recalled another friend from flight school, Ray Marino, whom he reconnected with in Salzburg, Austria, when the war in Europe was ending. Marino took Senneff to a small airport he had previously spied when conducting aerial reconnaissance. They were like two kids in a candy store, spending their days flying the different planes at the airport above the countryside and eventually flying two back to the 86th’s headquarters in Germany.
Returning home as a highly decorated war pilot, Senneff completed his education at the University of Illinois, earning a master's degree in aeronautical engineering.
In 1950, he began work at Bell in Wheatfield and, in time, helped design lunar module take-off engines. Married to the former Diane Mudd of Buffalo, Senneff is the father of six.
Until a few years ago, he flew his own small airplane and served as a flight instructor. But the skies have not been the only place he has enjoyed himself. He also served as a ski instructor and into his 80s as a snowboard instructor.
And there is the thrill of recalling his World War II service, though he is quick to add, “I’d never want to do that again.”
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