published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Even legends were teenagers once
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- Major Tommy McGuire is a World War II legend.
He graduated from Sebring High School in 1938, having mostly grown up on the shore of Lake Jackson, in a house at the foot of Kenilworth Boulevard across the street from the Elks, where a parking lot is now.
When he enlisted in the Army Air Corps he did so at the Sebring Airport, at the other end of Kenilworth. The road, in other words, is a symbol of the start and end of his life.
Which is why the city added his name to all Kenilworth street signs and held a special memorial service at the airport Saturday in his honor.
McGuire shot down 38 Japanese fighters between March 1943 and January 1945 and holds the record for second most air kills in the war.
He was awarded 15 Air Medals; two Purple Hearts; five Distinguished Crosses; two Silver Stars; a Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor -- all by the time he was 24 years old.
None of these impressive facts, however, tell anything about the man before he became a hero.
Charles Martin was one of the guest speakers at a ceremony.
Nine years younger than McGuire, Martin also grew up in Sebring and worshipped McGuire from afar. He remembers seeing the flyer in his uniform and being in awe. Martin spent 15 years researching McGuire's story and wrote a book about him, "The Last Great Ace."
Martin discovered adults weren't sure McGuire would ever amount to anything in life.
Despite his obvious intelligence, excellent reflexes and musical ability (he played the clarinet well), Martin said McGuire had a wild side that caused adults to despair.
He was, for example, a notorious daredevil and was infamous for speeding through town late at night, sometimes driving by the Sebring Cafe doing 70 mph.
Professor Peter Gustat, his music teacher at SHS, and Police Chief James M. Hancock took an interest in the teenager and tried to calm him down, without too much success.
His family was well off, but his life wasn't easy, Martin said.
The McGuires were divorced and their son spent part of the year in Sebring with his mother, and part in New Jersey with his father.
"He wasn't the most popular kid in school," Martin said. "His family had a little more money. They drove a car with white side wall tires. His mother sent him to school dressed a little too well. The boys thought he was a sissy."
Dropping out of Georgia Tech in 1941, McGuire became a pilot.
One of the most famous McGuire stories is about flying home during training. On leaving he flew very low over Lake Jackson and buzzed the entire length of Ridgewood Drive.
In combat, however, McGuire was professional and fearless, Martin told the audience.
A natural leader and highly skilled pilot, he was promoted rapidly, had high standards, and expected a lot from his flyers and ground crews.
He gave a lot in return and set an example, Martin said.
He was famous for ignoring danger while protecting others.
For example, Martin said, "Even after his ammo was gone, McGuire stayed up in the air, distracting the enemy so other flyers could regroup and counterattack.
"When the ground crews got tired of being strafed, Tommy told them he would fire his pistol as a warning when attacking planes were spotted."
To spot the planes, Martin added, McGuire stood in the middle of the runway as the Japanese attackers dove right at him.
On Jan, 7, 1945, McGuire led four planes over a Japanese airfield on Negros Island in the Philippines. The planes each carried two 160-gallon drop tanks of fuel, which they needed to complete their mission.
When first one and then a second Japanese plane unexpectedly engaged the American formation, McGuire ordered his pilots to fight back, but not drop their fuel tanks.
This was against regulations because the tanks affected maneuverability. Martin believes McGuire gave the order to ensure the success of the larger mission.
Everyone expected the Japanese planes to be shot down quickly. Instead, the Japanese gained an advantage. When McGuire's plane stalled during an evasive maneuver just 300 feet in the air, his plane pitched down, witnesses said, and slammed into the ground. McGuire was killed instantly.
Saturday, Martin reminded everyone that death didn't make McGuire a legend -- it was the way a small town show-off matured into a warrior.
illustrative of how the world deters heroics now (by: Lancebekistan - 10/24/2012)
If he were alive today he would be serving time in Highlands County jail. The universe rewards risk takers and societies reap the benefits of the risk taking. But not in these united states, not anymore...... the united states has gone from great to ruined and thanks to those that love laws and law enforcement..... someone needs to write an eulogy to the acquittal and the average citizens opportunity to judge the law based on their conscience... The rule of law has been effective used to remove potential threats to tyranny from the ranks of citizenship. It's a shame people will not have the pleasure of hearing stories like this about our generation 70 years from now.........
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