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One of a million: World War II bomber pilot credits his fellow servicemen
Standing by an old flag that hangs on his garage, World War II veteran pilot Stanley "Mac" Hughes looks out toward the Bitterroot Mountains and the setting sun of fall. Hughes flew 70 missions with the 559th Bomb Squadron in two different B-26 bombers named, The Front Burner and The Front Burner II. "I know I killed a lot of innocent people on the ground and that has always bothered me," said a humble Hughes while recounting the years he served as a bomber pilot during the war. "There were lots of heroes in the war that never got any recognition. I think all of them are good."
Photo by JEREMY LURGIO - Ravalli Republic

The Martin B-26 Marauder took off into the skies over England bound for Germany. The mission - to take out V1 rockets that rained down on the southern cities of Great Britain during much of World War II.

Stanley "Mac" Hughes, an 87-year old resident of the Bitterroot Valley, was the pilot or second pilot on 70 such missions in the hostile airspace of the Third Reich's Fortress Europe. Dodging walls of anti-aircraft fire, Mac and his fellow aviators literally worked overtime to stop the daily deluge of attacks on the civilian populations of England.

"The situation was so bad they didn't have new crews," Mac explained.

The mission limit per pilot was supposed to be 25 before flight crews could return home, but due to the shortage of trained pilots on the B-26, he and many others were extended well beyond that limit.

He seemed surprised to realize Thursday was Veterans Day. For him, not a day goes by without recalling his time in the Army Air Corps and the sacrifice made by so many brave men and women.

"I think about it all the time. It's just a few years out of your life." Mac said. "I don't talk about it much, but I think about it everyday."

Tuesday, Mac talked about his experiences, the missions and the war today.

Like many of his generation he was humble and proud at the same time, humble about his contribution to the war effort and proud of service to his country.

"I didn't do any more than a million others. They were all over there for one purpose," Mac said.

During the hectic days of World War II, he was stationed 40 miles south of London, assigned to a squadron called the Tiger Tails. His Marauder, a medium-sized bomber, was called the Front Burner, because they were on the front burner in the war effort, according to Mac.

He was proud that his plane was one of very few that never had to abort a mission because of mechanical problems. He credited the crew chief with the flawless record of his B-26.

"He used to come out at night and work on the plane," Mac said.

At six percent, his squadron also had the lowest losses in the European Theater of Operations.

With a crew of seven, the Marauder would roar into the air looking for launch sites of the V1 rockets Hitler used as a terror weapon against civilian targets in southern England. Then he and eight other Marauders, nine planes in a squadron, would bomb the launch facility.

As pilot, Mac was the man most responsible for the success of a mission and the safety of the men who flew with him.

"They put their lives in my hands," Mac said.

It's estimated that the Germans sometimes launched 190 rockets a day on the cities of southern England. The V1 was called a "retaliation bomb" because it would fly until it ran out of fuel, then fall and explode. It was too inaccurate to target military sites, and was used in a futile attempt to destroy civilian morale in the battered British cities.

"You could hear it, (the V1 rocket), coming in, chugging away. It had a light on the tail section. When that light went out that's when it came down and exploded," Mac said, explaining the blast could destroy a city block.

The short-winged B-26, with a mere 658 square feet of wing area, had to take off and land at speeds of over 110 miles per hour.

Mac was in the second group of B-26s flying from bases in England because the first group was ordered to fly at tree top level on bombing runs and they lost every single plane.

The Army Air Corps changed the attack altitude to 12,000 feet, saving a lot of pilots and planes.

At 25 during the war, he was one of the older pilots.

"Most of the kids were only 18 or 19," he said, reflecting on the young men he served with.

After 50 missions his crew returned to the United States for 30 days. During that time his plane was shot down. When he and the crew returned from leave, they christened their new B-26 the Front Burner II.

In 1944, he and his crew went through one of his worst experiences of the conflict in one of history's most important military operations.

His squadron was involved in a diversionary attack associated with the D-day invasion. They were to fly into heavily defended Germany and draw the enemy's attention from the vital beaches at Normandy where the Allied invasion was launched.

"They, (the Germans) had around 400, 88 mm anti-aircraft guns waiting for the (squadron flying the diversion)," Mac said, "There would be this huge ball of flame and it would send shrapnel every where."

He still has a small piece of shrapnel that came through the plane and landed in his lap during a bombing mission.

"It was like flying through a wall of explosions," he described.

Due to the limited space in the front gun turret of a B-26, the gunner had to take off his parachute in order to fire the weapon.

Mac watched a plane get hit very near that turret and recalled the gunner repeatedly reaching for his rip cord to open the parachute that wasn't there.

"I knew a couple of those guys on that plane," he said, putting his head in his hand. "I still see it plain as day."

He is haunted by other memories as well.

"It was very different back then. I didn't see a lot of the mayhem below. The bombing runs were a lot of by guess and by golly and windage. The poor guys on the ground were the ones I felt sorry for," he said

Today war is different and yet the same, according to Mac.

"Sure I worried about my wife, but we had a job to do. I know she worried about me. It would be weeks before she got letters from me."

"It's the same thing now. Families cried a long time ago too," Mac said.

He saw other similarities to the current war in Iraq.

"A human life wasn't worth two cents then, same as it is in Iraq today," he said.

But there are differences in wartime then and now.

"We lived in this country and we fought for this country. We didn't expect the government to take care of us," Mac said.

He produced a map that all pilots carried in their pocket when they went out on a mission. The map in pristine condition showed the coast of France and gave directions to underground forces in the country. The underground would rescue pilots after they were shot down and return them to the Allies.

He carefully folded the map back up and placed it away.

Mac looked over a small box that held his dog tags, a picture of himself, medals he earned and articles cut from newspapers.

He showed an Air Service Ribbon that had only enough room for eight of the 13 oak leaf clusters he earned and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Air Service Ribbon was for five completed missions and each oak leaf Cluster represented five more.

"There were lots of heroes in the war who never got recognized. That's why I think they are all good," he said.

Keeping with the family tradition, Mac's grandson is in training with the U.S. Marine Corps.

"That's what he wants to do. He is gung ho to get over to Iraq," he said.

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