Our Arklahoma Heritage: Major Pierce McKennon - WWII Flying Ace
On November 30, 1919 in Clarksville, one of the most decorated flying aces of World War II was born.
He and his family moved to Fort Smith when he was just two years old but he traveled the world before returning home at the age of twenty-seven to be buried with full military honors fitting his exploits and bravery.
Pierce Winingham McKennon graduated from St. Anne's Academy in May of 1937, and, because he was piano prodigy, he was given a full ride scholarship to the University of Arkansas.
His "booge woogie" style of playing the keyboards was such that he was offered the goodly sum of $100 per per week (the equivalent of $1800 a week in 2020 money) to play in bands and nightclubs, but "Mac" felt like he had a higher calling.
His father was a dentist, and McKennon eventually switched to pre-med at the U of A before dropping out, returning home and attending Fort Smith Jr. College.
He later earned his degree after returning to the U of A after a year, but the 20-year-old would go on to greater heights as a war hero who took a different flight path to a lasting legacy.
McKennon joined the US Army Air Corps in early 1940, but "washed" out because he had "no inherent flying ability" according to his instructors, in what turned out to be an understatement of massive proportions.
He immediately joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and earned his wings in December 1941 and was sent to Scotland for training, Before he could fly combat missions with the RCAF, he was transferred back to the U.S. Army Air Corps and was assigned to the 335th Fighter Squadron, Fourth Fighter Group, stationed at Debden, England.
He flew his first combat mission nine days later on February 27, 1943 in a Spitfire V. Shortly afterwards he was assigned a Republic P-17.
In July 1943, McKennon scored his first "kill", knocking down a German FW-190. He was the first "non-Eagle Squadron" member of the 4th Fighter Group to score a "kill, " Later his unit transitioned to P-51 Mustang's and he named his plane "Ridge Runner" and had a
"Razorback" hog painted on the nose.
In the early summer of 1944, McKennon returned to Fort Smith on a 30-day "R and R" leave and was the talk of the town. He was wearing three Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Air medal, each with three oak clusters. The young captain had flown 140 successful sorties at that juncture.
. On his return to England, he was named the commander of the 335th Fighter Squadron and was promoted to Major in 1945. After avoiding major problems to that point, he was shot down twice in a little over a year.
On August 28, 1944 while flying his third flight as operational commander, McKennon was shot down near Neuweiler, France, some twenty-miles behind enemy lines.
He parachuted onto woods and took a chance when he encountered a farmer in an open field.
The framer had connections to the French Resistance which led to the pilot hiding out in a bunker beneath a garbage dump, in the attic of an elderly teacher, and in a limestone cave.
He was also thought to have been sheltered in Neuwiller-lès-Saverne, a Catholic cathedral in the town near where he he ejected.
He was eventually smuggled back over enemy lines and returned to his squadron on September 22.
Just over a year later, while leading an attack on Prenzlau Airedrome, approximately 40 miles from Berlin, McKennon was forced to eject from another crippled aircraft.
One of his squadron members, breaking all UASF protocol and courting a possible court martial, landed his plane in an adjacent field and flew 600 miles back to safety while sitting in the lap of McKennon in the one-seater P-1 Mustang.
He finished the war with 20 German destroyed planes to his credit, 12 in the air and 8 on the ground, and he had flown 204 combat missions. His hardware included Distinguished Flying Crosses with four Oak clusters, the Air Medal with sixteen oak clusters, a Purple Heart, the French Croix de Gurre, and the Distinguished Unit Citation.
Even give his demanding and exacting standards, he had proven his flight instructor in Texas that had "washed him out" wrong time and time again.
In 1946 he married Beulah Irene Sawyer, a 1943 graduate of Fort smith High School. Miss Sawyer had been named the first "Miss Fort Smith" in July,
Major McKennon was transferred to Randolph Field in San Antonio to become a flight instructor. He abhorred the new assignment, and told ayone that would listen over the next few months that the "only two things I fear is flak and student pilots".
Ironically, Major McKennon was killed just over a year later at the age of twenty-seven when the AT-6 Texan he was instructing a student pilot in crashed.
Major McKennon was buried on June 23, 1947, with full military honors, in Forest Park Cemetery in Fort Smith.
Six P-51 Mustangs flew overhead saluting their fallen comrade.