McCook Air Base commander — Col. John R. ‘Killer’ Kane, hero of World War II
Walt Sehnert – Monday, November 13, 2006
In the Jan. 12, 1945 issue of the McCook Daily Gazette (the same issue that told about a Bob Hope USO show at the Air Base) there was a report on the appointment of Col. John “Killer” Kane, one of the most colorful and distinguished pilot-leaders of World War II, to be the new Commandant at the McCook Air Field.
John Kane was born in Texas, the son of a Baptist minister. After he graduated from Baylor University in 1928 he entered the Army Air Arm, receiving his commission and wings at Randolph Field, Texas. After his initial enlistment he entered the Army Reserves, but the lure of the military and flying was compelling. In 1935 he reentered active service at Barksdale Field, LA, where he eventually became Base Commander.
Early in World War II Kane became the Commander of the 98th Bomb Group’s B-24 Liberators. He flew 43 combat missions in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, logging more than 250 combat hours. The 98th Bomb Group was called the Pyramiders, and Kane’s own daring operations earned him the title of “Killer” Kane by the German Luftwaffe intelligence reports.
On one mission Kane earned the Silver Star when his plane became separated from his formation and was attacked by an enemy pursuit plane. Kane was able to successfully maneuver his plane, even though tail and top turrets of his bomber became inoperative, through eight different attacks by the enemy fighter, who eventually ran out of ammunition. Kane’s plane and crew returned to base with minimal damage.
“Killer” Kane was best known as the leader of one of the great air strikes of WW II—the massive air attack on the oil and gas refineries at Ploesti, Romania in Aug.1943.
The Nazi war machine was getting some 35% of its petroleum supplies from the seven refineries around Ploesti. Therefore, it was believed that a concentrated bombing on these facilities would have a major bearing on just how long the war would last.
It was the largest Air Task Force up to that date, involving some 178 B-24 planes from the 29th, 376th, 98th Air Groups from North Africa, as well as the 93rd, 44th, and 389th Groups, which had been stationed in England before being shipped to North Africa. It was also the longest raid (1,350 miles from base to target) up to that date.
The raid was planned on a Sunday to minimize the casualties of impressed workers who were forced to work in the refineries. It was a simple plan, surprise (approaching the target area at treetop altitude) and precision bombing. All seven refineries were to be hit simultaneously. The raid was considered a success. However, in spite of meticulous planning, things did not go as planned, leading Churchill to comment, “In war nothing ever goes according to plan except occasionally, and then by accident”.
The enemy defense was much heavier than expected—some 400 enemy fighter planes, 230 antiaircraft guns, barrage balloons, and smudge pots. The lead navigator bomber was lost before the target was even reached. A towering formation of cumulus clouds over the mountains caused groups to become separated—some were as much as 29 minutes ahead of others. Kane’s Group was one which had been detoured over the mountains to avoid the clouds and had gotten off course. By the time they arrived at the target area another group had already made one bombing run and the German fighters were out in full force. But Col. Kane was resolute. “Either we hit Ploesti or we’ll die trying” was his comment just before taking off on the raid.
Kane led 41 of his B-24 Liberators straight “Into a scene that resembled the background of a medieval painting of hell”. 15 planes were lost in the attack, three more as they left the target area. In all, 54 of the 178 planes were lost—500 men.
After Kane’s crew had dropped its bombs it circled the area for some time, directing later Groups to the bomb site—until fuel was so low that they were forced to withdraw. They had not escaped unscathed. One motor knocked out, and the plane had incurred fatal damage from flak. The plane was demolished in a crash landing on Cyprus.
The mission, though flawed, was never-the-less a great success. In one respect, it probably will never be equaled. Five Congressional Medals of Honor (the nation’s highest military honor) were awarded that day (including one to John “Killer” Kane)— more than have ever been awarded for a single engagement in our nation’s history.
Col. Kane was already a well known war hero by the time he took command of the McCook Air Base in January 1945. He was living at the Keystone Hotel with his wife and six year old son John Franklyn when a reporter caught up with him for an interview. The Gazette would have interviewed him at length about the Ploesti Raid, but he kept bringing the interview back to his work at the McCook Base. “A combat crew training base, such as McCook, is the last chapter in training, the preface to combat. If this chapter is weak the whole story falls apart”, Col. Kane emphasized.
Both McCook Air Field and Col. Kane had made their name with B-24 Liberators. Kane loved the B-24, but stressed the fact that both he and McCook must now move on and embrace the B-29, which Gen. Arnold had predicted, would bring destruction to the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. Someone suggested that the Ploesti Raid would have been more successful if B-29s had been used. Col. Kane replied, “Couldn’t have been made at low altitude, the B-29s are too big. It wouldn’t have been considered with such an expensive aircraft. If they had made the raid they would have gone in at high altitude.”
It didn’t take Col. Kane long to be accustomed to his new role as Commander of the Air Base. He had brought with him, two officers and an enlisted man, who had served with him in the 98th in Africa and Europe, who helped make the transition easier. In McCook he was a no-nonsense, take charge CO. He was also a bit impatient.
One day, soon after he arrived, a B-29 slipped off the runway while making a landing, and had gotten hopelessly mired in the mud. Tractors had been hitched to the plane to pull, while the planes own engines were to assist in bringing the plane back on the runway. The crews had worked for some hours, with no success. The pilot was reluctant to apply too much power to the engines.
Finally, Killer Kane could take no more. He ordered yet another tractor to be hitched to the plane, then moved the reluctant pilot over to the co-pilot’s seat, taking over the plane’s controls himself. One more time he ordered the tractors to pull, and he applied what must have been full throttle to the plane’s engines. The plane shuddered and shook, but inched its way back on the runway. Once more on hard surface the Col. shut down the plane’s engines, turned the controls back over to the pilot and left the plane—back to his duties of running the base.
Col. Kane retired from the service in 1954, to take up residence on a farm in Arkansas. After the death of his second wife, Phyllis he moved to Pennsylvania in 1987, to be near his son. He was living in a VA Nursing Home in Pennsylvania when he died in 1996. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Though Kane was a successful Commander at several Air Bases, including McCook, it is for the Ploesti Raid that he is most remembered.
In one of his last public statements, he wrote in a preface to a book about the raid, “I still recall the smoke, fire, and B-24s going down, like it was yesterday … Even now I get a lump in my throat when I think about what we went through. I didn’t get the Medal of Honor. The 98th did.”
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