Saturday, November 11, 2017

Walt McDaniel: Air Force pilot glad he didn’t become Indiana farmer

Walt McDaniel served as a pilot in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

FAIRFIELD — Walt McDaniel had just bought a used car from a dealer in his hometown of Elwood, Indiana, when the car’s radio announced the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

The 19-year-old and his cousin decided they wanted to fly and not walk, so they signed up for the Aviation Cadet Program at their first opportunity.

On Jan. 1, 1943, McDaniel was called to active duty and eventually ended up at Keesler Field, Mississippi, to start his aviation training. He graduated from flying school May 23, 1944, and his first aircraft was a P-40 fighter.

“It was a tricky little devil with narrow landing gear,” McDaniel said of the venerable fighter.

One time, he bellied in his P-40 during a much-less-than-graceful landing, noting “the plane came apart, but I didn’t get a scratch.”

He married his wife, who he knew in high school, on his first leave, and was sent to England to join the 434th Fighter Squadron in February 1945 to fly F-51 Mustang fighters.

Legendary fighter ace Robin Olds was his squadron commander and took McDaniel up for his check ride and to stress “to be aggressive, but know what you were doing.”

The air war may have been winding down, but the Luftwaffe could still put planes into the air.

McDaniel flew several low-level missions, sometimes passing over POW camps and flying over cities at tree-top level “where there was nothing left but chimneys.”

“In Munich, there were bomb craters all over the place,” McDaniel said. “Aachen, there was nothing but a smoke stack and a lot of rubble.”

McDaniel described the powerful and agile P-51 as “a young man’s thrill,” while he described the C-130 transport he later flew in Vietnam as “the old man’s thrill.”

McDaniel and his squadron got orders for the Pacific, but that war ended when their ship was two days out of Boston.

“I came back thinking that I wanted to be a farmer,” McDaniel said of his post-war plans. “But two weeks later, I realized that I had made a mistake.”

It took McDaniel five years to get back into uniform and into flying, just in time for the start of the Korean War.

After training as a radar controller, and after a transfer to Massachusetts, McDaniel was sent to Korea to K-14, Kimpo Air Base, just as the truce was signed, to maintain F-86 jet fighters.

McDaniel had to deal with truce inspection teams made up of Swedish, Swiss, Polish and Czechoslovakian officers who initially tried driving to the base from Inchon, but who stopped “after the Koreans would throw rocks at them.”

They switched to helicopter transport for what McDaniel described as “an eventful ride” followed by early morning inspections where they would drive down the ramp “as fast as we could” so they could not read tail numbers.

After K-14 closed, McDaniel was moved to Chitose, Japan, in 1955, where the F-86s “would fly up to play cat-and-mouse games” with the Russians.

He came back to the U.S. to an Air Reserve training base in Long Beach where he became a base operations officer and eventually a flight safety officer.

McDaniel was on hand in February 1958 when a C-118 collided with a Navy P-2V Neptune over Norwalk and crashed in a sheriff’s department parking lot.

“I was on the phone to handle the media and coordinate recovery for 48 hours,” McDaniel said.

After a stint at the 4th Air Force headquarters, he went to Tactical Air Command at Langley, Virginia, to travel to Air National Guard and Reserve units for safety inspections.

McDaniel applied for missile training and was sent to Little Rock Air Force Base when the Titan II missiles became operational.

After a 65-mile trip from the base to the missile silos and going through an 800-item checklist, “you had plenty of time to study.”

McDaniel was there when the Cuban Missile Crisis started, “and it got a little touchy because we had nuclear warheads,” he said.

McDaniel got back on flying status and was sent to Hamilton Air Force Base to fly the twin-engine T-29, carrying anyone from high-ranking officers to press.

After a year, he got orders to the 308th Troop Carrier Wing in Taiwan, which flew missions to Okinawa, the Philippines and Vietnam where he would be based at Nha Trang for several weeks at a time.

“We picked up everything from blood plasma to Stars and Stripes magazines,” McDaniel said.

“We also picked up an airborne command upgrade and would fly over the Mekong Delta where they were coordinating fighter strikes out of our back end,” McDaniel said.

His most tense delivery was a 2 a.m. flight carrying a bridge to Tay Ninh near the Cambodian border.

“We found the strip. They lit up a couple of barrels at the end of the runway,” McDaniel said. “We landed and kept calling, but no one showed up. Then we called the general and asked if he still wanted the bridge.”

McDaniel had the engine running when someone finally showed and unloaded the bridge.

Minutes after the last piece was off, McDaniel heard the sounds of Viet Cong mortars starting to work over the runway and took off before they hit his aircraft.

Another flight carrying tightly packed South Vietnamese rangers to Pleiku ended with the rangers delivered and the discovery after landing that ground fire had killed one of them without any of the other passengers noticing.

Khe Sanh was one of his stops during the 1967 siege, carrying 105 mm artillery ammunition.

“We would open the back door, fly about 3 feet off the ground and throw out a drag chute,” McDaniel said of how they made the delivery without stopping.

McDaniel came back to the U.S. and Mather Air Force Base, where he flew with student navigators.

When he figured his number was coming up again for Vietnam, he decided it was time to retire in March 1969 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He put his management and assessment skills learned in the Air Force to work in the banking industry before retiring a second time in 1983.

As for what his Air Force career did for him: “My kids would say, ‘Thank God, you didn’t stay in Elwood, Indiana, you would have been nothing but a dirt farmer.’ ”

“The Air Force opened up a whole different life for me,” McDaniel said.

Story and photos ➤

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