SHELTER COVE >> At the age of 17, after lying about his age with his mother’s approval, Shelter Cove resident Tom McMahon enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and became the tail gunner of a B-17 bomber, one of the first to fly missions over German-occupied France and Belgium less than a year after the United States entered World War II.
He was assigned to the 369th Squadron of the 306th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, and held the rank of sergeant when he arrived in England in September 1942 after several months of training in the U.S.
On January 13, 1943, after 13 missions, during one of which he was wounded, McMahon’s aircraft collided with another B17 that had been shot by German fighter planes near Lille, France. Both planes went down, killing all on board except for McMahon.
By sheer luck the tail portion of McMahon’s plane separated from the rest of the aircraft. Kneeling at his post in the tail, peering through the small sights to find his target and manipulate his 50-caliber machine gun, McMahon floated 45 miles toward the Belgian border unaware that he was alone in the air and that the rest of his crew had crashed.
He bailed out of the tail section near the French-Belgian border and parachuted down to a field, landing so hard that at first he couldn’t move. A 12-year old French boy who had seen him come down used hand signals to urge McMahon to get up, then helped him get to a nearby chicken coop, where McMahon spent his first night in hiding.
U.S. authorities assumed that McMahon was dead along with the rest of his crew where the planes had crashed, so he was not listed among the missing.
McMahon went to work for the French and Belgian resistance, delivering the “Libre Belgique” newspaper as well as maps of enemy installations. He and a Belgian paratrooper captain, also working for the resistance, were captured by the Gestapo in Brussels in April, 1943. Because McMahon was in civilian clothes and had no military identification, the Germans decided he was a spy and sent him to St. Gils Prison in Belgium where he was interrogated and tortured.
Once while being tortured in a room he described as “something like an operating theater,” McMahon became very cold and felt paralysis creeping up his body. “I’m dying,” he thought. Suddenly his vision was filled with blue and white light — the most beautiful colors he’d ever seen — and he began to feel warm again.
McMahon was raised Catholic and attended a Jesuit high school in New York City. Although he never saw her face, he believes that the blue and white light emanated from the presence of the Blessed Virgin, mother of Christ, who traditionally wears blue and white robes. This vision enabled him to endure the ordeal and many others that followed.
McMahon was sentenced to be executed, but during what was to be his final interrogation, a German officer told him he would be spared if he would give one name of a member of his squadron.
With much reluctance, fearing he would be a traitor, McMahon gave the name of the radioman, the oldest man in the squadron. The officer pulled out four books, one for each squadron of the 306th, and asked McMahon to show him the name he had given. To McMahon’s astonishment the books held the names and other information on every member of his Bomb Group.
When his military identification was established in July 1943, McMahon was transferred to an interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany, and from there to Stalag 7-A, a POW camp in Meusberg, Germany.
Over the next two years, McMahon made six escape attempts by different methods, sometimes getting away during moments of confusion or inattention, or by tunneling, and once by jumping through the open window of a train while being transferred from Stalag 7-A to Stalag 17-B in Austria. He sustained many injuries and was beaten, tortured, and often put in solitary confinement after being recaptured.
As the Russian Army advanced into Europe in the spring of 1945, all the prisoners were evacuated from Stalag 17-B except those who could not walk. McMahon’s knees were injured but he faked worse injuries, even pounding his knees with salt wrapped in a stocking to make them swell, to avoid being forced to leave.
As the German SS troops dug in to fend off the Russians, McMahon slipped out of the hospital and joined the Russians, his last and finally successful escape. He fought along with the Russian troops until the last SS troops and the town of Krems surrendered. He spent several months in a hospital in England recovering from his wounds before he returned to the U.S.
Not surprisingly, McMahon’s entire family was dedicated to military and peacetime service. His father and mother both served in World War I; his mother was the nurse who tended his father when he was hospitalized with wounds. His father was a member of the New York City Police, and many of his relatives on both sides were policemen.
McMahon attended Xavier High School, a Jesuit-run school, for only one year. “I was kind of a rebel,” he said, and it was his teachers who first suggested he should consider joining the military. By lying about his age, with the full approval of his mother, he enrolled in the Citizens Military Training Group, which hoped to prepare civilians for the war that was obviously coming. From there he went into the New York State Guard, followed by the National Guard, a direct path into the U.S. Army when the U.S. entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. His older brother and sister also enlisted and served with distinction.
After the war McMahon completed his high school degree, and after a brief stint as a medical student, he went back to New York where much to the consternation of his family of policemen he became a firefighter. Like his father before him, McMahon married the nurse who had taken care of him when he was in the hospital in the U.S.
He spent several years with the New York City Fire Department while studying law at night, practiced criminal law for several years, and then moved to the West Coast with his wife, six children, and their cat. McMahon acquired a teaching credential and had a long career as a teacher at many grade levels, ultimately teaching law to Marines at Camp Pendleton.
When his children were grown, McMahon wanted to move to Humboldt after visiting his eldest son, a school principal in the Eureka area. His wife preferred to stay in California close to the other children, so they divorced.
McMahon came to Shelter Cove late in the 1970s, where he built the house he lives in today with his second wife, Katie. The couple have three children, now in their twenties. Some of his older children also moved to the North Coast. His daughter Annette is married to Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey. At last count, McMahon has 29 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Kenneth J. Kurtenbach, the POW camp leader at Stalags 7-A and 17-B, and elected by the prisoners, wrote a statement “To Whom It May Concern” on behalf of McMahon in 1987, which concludes:
“Sgt. McMahon is to be commended in any way possible for his courage and his affinity to orders given in England to all 8th Air Force personnel that, if captured, it was their duty to escape and Sgt. McMahon certainly complied with that order in the bravest ways possible.”
McMahon is the recipient of many military honors including the Conspicuous Service Cross with gold and silver palms, the Air Medal with two clusters, Purple Heart with two clusters, POW medal, Belgian Resistance Medal, American Order of the French Croix de Guerre, Presidential Unit Citation, ETO with one cluster, two battle stars, American Theater Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal, and Victory Medal.