Known as the 'The Man Who Would Not Die'-------'Lucky' Herschel McKee
was known as the 'The Man Who Would Not Die', I give you 'Lucky' Herschel McKee.
We know from these pages what happens if you tempt fate.....fate usually notices and arranges a suitably unpleasant demise. But there can be few people who have blown raspberries at the Grim Reaper with quite such frequency without instantly terminal consequences. 'Lucky' Herschel McKee was a barnstormer, war hero, test pilot, motor racer and a scoundrel!
Born on the 19th November 1897, in Indianapolis, USA, McKee was a student at Emmerich Manual Training High School when war broke out in Europe in 1914. He left school in 1917 and took a job in the passbook department of the old National City Bank in Indianapolis. But the routine of the bank bored Herschel and in March of that year he left Indianapolis to go and work for the Colt Arms Company in Providence, R.I.. In need of further excitement by October he had left Colt and joined the French Foreign Legion in New York and was on his way to France to fight in the Great War. McKee trained with the Foreign Legion in the Algerian Desert before seeing service at the front in the Third Battle of Champagne (17–20 April 1917) as a machine gunner.
He contracted catching a virulent form of pneumonia and was given the last rites however he survived, something he was going to make a habit of. He not only survived but made application to join the Lafayette Flying Corps. He was accepted and assigned to Escadrille No. 314, a group made up of a few Americans, many French, and about 60 Russians. He quickly learned to fly the three aircraft utilised by the French at the time: the Bleriot, primarily a trainer; the Nieuport, used for training and combat; and the Spad, the hottest Allied pursuit ship of the era.
“It flew just like a streamlined brick,” McKee said of the Spad, but within a few months, McKee had claimed 12 kills in action with the Germans. He was wounded in the right arm by machine gun fire, but managed to return to his base for treatment but on Feb. 6th, 1918, his plane was brought down by a burst of shrapnel as he flew over the German lines.
The plane crashed in flames so heavily that the US War Department informed his parents that he had been killed in action. However, as you probably already guessed, this was not the case and he was captured by the Germans, who placed him in a barn that served as a makeshift hospital until his wounds healed. They then transferred him to the prison camp at Bastatt Baden where, before long, he escaped during a change of the guard, and fled to Switzerland, rejoining his unit shortly after the armistice.
On the same day McKee was reported missing, his family received a letter from him written before the capture. The letter bubbled with brashness, enthusiasm, and self-assurance.
The only thing which we can hunt over here are Boche, and they are getting scarce. I attacked a Boche the other day and he fell too far behind his own lines for the observation post to see it, so I did not get credit for bringing him down.
A few days later I swooped down on a German battery and emptied my 500 rounds on them.
Forget me as I am old enough to take care of myself. I will receive 21 days leave and my time starts after I report to the French Consul. I have not received any packages so far and will write you as soon as they arrive.
Don’t be afraid of any Germans, as they are a mere trifle.
Sergeant Pilot Aviator
Several weeks later, the family received official word that their son was alive, in good health, and a prisoner of war. Mrs. McKee was greatly consoled, but wrote in the scrapbook she kept of her son’s adventures:
My boy, my fine young boy is back from war with blood on his hands. Blood from warm young men he never knew or heard their golden plans. (A sobering reminder of the price both sides paid)
When he was discharged after the war, he returned to America to begin a search, that for him, would never end.
“I didn’t know yet what I was looking for,” McKee said. “I only know I looked very hard and in a lot of places. If it was fast, I wanted to try it and if someone said I couldn’t do it or it couldn’t be done, I’d give it a try.”
In 1919, he was a riding mechanic with the intrepid Frenchman Andre Boillot in the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. In the 191st lap, running in third place, a wheel collapsed and McKee and Boillot flew over the wall and landed on their heads. Of course neither was injured though Boillot was killed 13 years later driving a Peugeot 201 the Ars hillclimb at La Châtre in 1932.
Hershel flew and raced as often as injuries permitted. He rode a motorcycle in thrill shows, riding at full speed through a flaming wall of boards. He barnstormed all over the country and raced at AAA sanctioned events and also flew the mail from Chicago to St. Louis. He crashed airplanes and cars and lived balanced on the razor’s edge. But always survived.
In the 1921 500-Mile Race, he rode as mechanic with Riley Brett. And in 1922 he rode with Frank Elliott, one of his lifelong friends. In 1922, McKee and Elliott set a world record average speed of 117.5 miles an hour for a 250 mile race at the Cotati board track in California.
A year earlier, both McKee and Elliott flirted with death when the crankshaft on Elliott’s Duesenberg snapped and the car spun, ripping out 50 feet of guard rail at the San Carlos board track near San Francisco. The car ended up balanced precariously on the edge of the track, while Elliott scampered to safety. McKee actually held the car on the track until guards could remove him, uninjured, from the tottering racer. The force of the impact was so great the engine was ripped out of the racecar, and a 4x4 post was driven through the engine block.
In December 1922, McKee tried his hand at driving a Duesenberg at the Beverly Hills Speedway in California. His mechanic was Hugh Curley. While practicing before the race, McKee tried to pass Joe Thomas’ car and locked wheels in the maneuver. McKee smashed into the guardrail, overturned, then slid upside down and on fire across the board track. McKee and his mechanic were both seriously injured and pinned in the wreck, spending weeks in hospital before being released.
His injuries had not completely healed before he was involved in a plane crash on April 9th, 1923. McKee and Edward Malone, also of Indianapolis, left a private airport near Los Angeles to do some aerobatics in a two seat biplane. For some reason, they left the exhaust pipes off of the engine.
“Everything was fine for a few minutes,” McKee said. “We got off the ground all right and were climbing all right when I felt something was wrong. I could feel a lot of heat, but I couldn’t see much. It got so hot my flying hat burned off, and I decided to get out. I got out on the wing and jumped. I guess we were still 200 feet up. Boy, did I hit,” McKee said. McKee survived the jump by landing in a haystack, suffering a fractured skull and broken leg. However his friend was not so lucky and died in the crash.
In 1924 and in 1925, McKee was back again racing and flying all over the country as if nothing had ever happened. He raced on the board tracks at Ascot, Fresno, Los
Angeles and Beverly Hills in California, and eastward at Kansas City, Mo., Syracuse, N.Y., and Indianapolis.
In 1925, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Air Corps and did periodic duty with the 309th Observation Squadron at Wright Field. The group was made up entirely if Indiana fliers.
In 1926 Ernest Eldridge took two Eldridge-Anzani cars to the Indy 500, no doubt tempted by the prize money, for himself and Douglas Hawkes (later to marry Gwenda Stewart). Hawkes qualified 17th with Eldridge further back in 23rd. In the race, Herschell stepped in to drive relief for ten laps on lap 22 before Eldridge took over again, going out on lap 45 with steering problems when a tie rod broke.
He then went without a drive at Indy until 1932, when Bob McDonough picked him up. In 1933, he rode with Chet Gardner and experimented with two-way radio communication on the Sampson Special.
In 1933, while McKee was taking a joyride over Chicago, the motor of his plane suddenly fell off at 2,000 feet up. He maintained control of the plane and spiraled safely to earth.
In 1935, McKee tried to drive the oval himself, but spun out and hit the wall in the southwest turn. In 1936, he alternated as mechanic with Herb Ardinger and Coiff Bergere, and in 1937 rode with Jimmy Snyder.
Between races, McKee persisted in his search for excitement to keep life from being dull.
December 1931 found McKee riding in a patrol car with two of his police friends in Valla Park, Ill. They spotted a car with four suspicious men in it and stopped to question the occupants. The police began searching two of the men, when McKee saw the other two getting ready to run. He jerked the riot gun from its rack in the squad car and ordered both of the men to stop or he’d shoot. Later, it was learned the gang was responsible for a string of holdups and were casing other prospects when the police and McKee stopped them.
But there was one incident that gave McKee more excitement than he ever wants to see again. While flying the mail runs from Chicago to St. Louis in 1936, he began to instruct several student fliers. Several of these students were Chinese, and it wasn’t long before the Chinese split into two factions in an attempt to gain all of McKee’s attention. When it became apparent that McKee would not pick a side, the Chinese became involved in a tong war and battled it out with hatchets while McKee stood by helplessly. When the fight was over, four of his students were dead and several others seriously injured.
McKee also did experimental work with parachutes. He believed that if a plane had engine failure, large parachutes could be released, and the plane could float safely to earth. McKee used this technique three times in 1932 successfully. But on the fourth try, while motion picture cameras recorded the incident, one of the parachuted failed to open after McKee shut off the plane’s engine and began his descent. He went out on the wing in a frantic attempt to unsnarl the chute, but the plane crashed. McKee was not injured, but the crash seemed to create doubts as to just how safe the safety device was.
McKee later experimented with parachutes while serving with the Army at Wright-Patterson Field, and is credited with the perfection of the drag chutes now used as brakes for supersonic fighters and bombers in landings. he was also involved with development of the Boeing B17, the 'Flying Fortress'. He flew one on a test flight and skillfully handled it through a hailstorm.
In 1939, the Battle of Britain had begun, and the click of hobnailed boots and goose-steps sent their tremors from Europe around the world. McKee heard them too and in March 1940, he applied for a visa for Finland so he could train pilots. At the same time, he was asked to go to Canada to help train pilots for the British Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force.
He refused the Canadian offer because he was unwilling to renounce his American citizenship. The other opportunity exploded when Finland was overrun by Russia. So McKee waited until May 1942, when he was activated from the reserves and sent to Wright-Patterson as technical consultant and engineer with Allison Division of General Motors Corporation.
A few months of wrangling, and McKee had worked his way into the 44th Bomber Group at Brookley Field at Mobile, Ala., where he was promoted to captain. As a group commander, McKee was supposed to fly a desk, but he could not keep out of the ships when the hot missions came up. He flew with the 44th on one of the most dangerous missions of the war, Operation Tidal Wave, the raid on the oil fields at Ploesti in Rumania.
“The casualties rate was almost 90 per cent,” McKee said as he puffed a cigar and nodded sadly, “90 per cent. And I was in the other 10 per cent, as I usually am!” he went on “We flew so low in our approach to the oil fields that when we got back to England we had cornstalks hanging from the bomb bay doors.”
He was decorated with the Croix de Guerre by General de Gaulle. After the war, he returned to the United States and was discharged. He retained his reserve status and worked for the Veteran’s Administration for a time, then returned to his work at Allison as a consultant at Wright-Patterson. Later, he went back into the Air Force and stayed until he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in November 1958.
But now, time, not McKee’s past deeds, has caught up with him. He underwent surgery for a kidney ailment at Walter Reed Hospital in 1960. During the operation, his
spleen was damaged and removed. While he was recovering from the operation, he suffered a stroke, which left his left side paralyzed.
He was confined to the West 10th Street Veteran’s Administration Hospital but his condition improved with therapy and he was able to go home at weekends to be back with his second wife, Mary Elizabeth, at their apartment on West Washington Street, Indianapolis.
Bigamy was perhaps the only thing that produced anything in him close to fear, and it would only appear to be his war record that prevented any prosecution. Nevertheless, even when the women found out, they seemed able to forgive him. At his funeral, five women produced evidence of being married to him.