Ever since he was a young boy in the 1920s, Terrence “Ted” Magee—who recently celebrated his 93rd birthday in Southampton—loved planes.Young Ted started building toy planes out of balsa wood, powered by nothing more than his right hand. They could do loops and dives and even land smoothly. He later moved on to gliders and other small planes powered by rubber bands.
After graduating from Hempstead High School in 1941—just months before the United States entered World War II—he got a job at Republic Aviation in Farmingdale as an assistant in the blueprint room of the Engineering Department. Republic Aviation is responsible for designing and building the P-47 Thunderbolt, a fighter aircraft armed with eight .50-caliber guns, air-to-air rockets and bombs, and a 2,430-horsepower engine that could top out at 433 mph.
From the windows of the Engineering Department, Mr. Magee could see the P-47 take off and land during test flights. Watching those planes, he decided he wanted to become a P-47 pilot.
He never got to fly the P-47 fighter, specifically. But Mr. Magee did become a pilot, a successful one: He is credited with flying 38 missions during World War II, and he was never once shot down or critically injured—though he came close.
Mr. Magee was born on May 1, 1923, in Hempstead, to Terrance and Helen Magee. At the time, Hempstead was nothing but a small village with a population of about 25,000. The senior Mr. Magee was a plumber and worked on many of Robert Moses’s projects that transformed Long Island. Mrs. Magee was employed by the post office in Manhattan but stopped working to raise her children.
Mr. Magee grew up as the oldest of 12 siblings, four of whom are alive today.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Mr. Magee began attending night school, training as an aluminum sheet metal mechanic, in hopes of being hired by Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation—which he eventually was. Mr. Magee’s work was specific to a plane called the Grumman TBF Avenger, a torpedo bomber.
While working at Grumman, he received notice that his number had been selected by the Draft Board. This required him to join the Army, something he wasn’t thrilled about.
His father saw a newspaper article about the Air Force looking for officer candidates who wanted to become pilots, navigators and bombardiers. “I went to Mitchel Field following the advice of my father,” Mr. Magee recalled, referring to the Air Force base in Hempstead. “He said, ‘Get over there!’”
After easily passing the tests that determine if a person is fit to join the Air Force, Mr. Magee’s only issue was a requirement to put on few pounds, which he tried to do, unsuccessfully, by eating bananas for a weekend. The military physician thought about it and finally approved Mr. Magee’s application, despite his being underweight. That afternoon, Mr. Magee was sworn in, and he notified the Draft Board that he would be volunteering for the Air Force instead.
His first stop was the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City, where, according to Mr. Magee, there were no bell boys. And it was up to the newly inducted members of the Air Force to cook and clean.
After that, it was off to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where he got his first taste of being in a plane. Though he didn’t pilot the aircraft, just flying in the Piper J-3 Cub gave him a thrill.
Mr. Magee’s training continued at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, and after that he went to Lafayette, Louisiana, where he got to fly solo for the first time. The plane was a Fairchild PT-23, and he was thrown off a bit when his instructor—a man from upstate New York with whom he had gotten along very well—climbed out of the rear cockpit and told him to take off, turn into the landing pattern, and then land the plane. He did it successfully.
Mr. Magee said he was one of the first pilots to fly solo in the group. He was ahead of the rest of the class, and toward the end of his training his instructor said there was nothing else to teach him other than advanced maneuvers such as rolls and loops.
After graduating from flight school, Mr. Magee was transferred to Lincoln, Nebraska, where his Boeing B-17 bomber crew was assembled. The testing required the entire crew to be placed into a hypobaric chamber, where the atmospheric pressure was reduced to the equivalent of flying at 55,000 feet. The test was to find out if anyone would develop nitrogen in the blood. Nobody did.
The B-17 was known as the Flying Fortress. It had four 1,200-horsepower engines, was capable of flying at 300 mph, cruised at 170 mph, carried a bomb load of 6,000 pounds, had .50-caliber machine guns and a crew of 10. Mr. Magee was one of two pilots on the crew.
The crew arrived at their station in Italy on October 31, 1944, and one of their first missions was to fly to the Po Valley, in the northern part of the country, to bomb a railroad bridge near an active battle between the Allies and the Germans.
On many missions, the Tuskegee Airmen flew their red-tailed P-51 fighters alongside the B-17. The bomber crew was fortunate to have the Tuskegee Airmen as escorts, Mr. Magee said: “They were good fellas. They were with us and never lost one bomber.”
On this particular mission, even with the Red Tails’ protection against the Germans, the bomber caught some fire. Mr. Magee said his crew ran into some flak—anti-aircraft fire—and when they got back to their base, they found there were 112 holes in the right wing, and engine number two was having problems. Miraculously, nobody was hurt on his crew.
Another mission, on Easter morning in 1945, had Mr. Magee counting his lucky stars at the end of the day. The mission was to take out a bridge in Maribor, Yugoslavia. Mr. Magee was bumped off his original plane, because someone higher up wanted to fly the mission. He got into a second plane and was bumped off again. But the third plane was a charm.
When the squadron was flying in, they were at 16,000 feet instead of the usual 28,000 feet. German guns could reach a maximum altitude of 28,000 feet, according to Mr. Magee. It was anticipated there would be no anti-aircraft guns in the area, but when they reached the location they encountered very heavy smoke.
After the load of bombs had been dropped, the squadron fell apart, and he saw that the plane he normally flew had encountered problems. “They had lost the use of two engines, were losing altitude and would never make it across the coastal mountains,” Mr. Magee said. “Then I saw my crew begin to drop out and open their ’chutes. I kept counting until all 10 of the crew were safely drifting to the ground.”
Mr. Magee said it was determined later that a trainload of guns had arrived at the bridge.
Once he was debriefed, he went to the operations office to see if anyone had found out anything about the crew, and the staff was surprised to see him. The office had just finished sending a Missing In Action telegram to his family. He demanded that they get his family on the phone and, after an hour, he was able to tell his mother that he was okay.
The 10 who parachuted also survived, though two suffered injuries.
In 1946, after the war, Mr. Magee started taking classes at Hofstra University back home in Hempstead, and he worked as an assistant to a transit operator. He eventually began working for the family business, Magee Brothers Plumbing and Heating, as a journeyman’s helper.
After a few other jobs on Long Island, Mr. Magee was hired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a plumbing and heating technician, and he eventually became a mechanical engineer.
In 1953, Mr. Magee married the love of his life, a girl who captivated him in grade school who went by the name Kathleen Von Elm.
“I walked home with her one day and was taken with her,” Mr. Magee said. “It lasted with me for the rest of my life.”
Though the two of them went in different directions when they reached high school, they reunited later in life and had three children—Terrence, Christopher and Mary. Mrs. Magee died in 2004 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
After working for the Port Authority for 35 years, Mr. Magee retired in 1990 and purchased a home in Southampton, where he joined the Southampton Elks and Southampton Knights of Columbus, both organizations he said he is proud to be affiliated with. He has also been part of the 483rd Bomb Group Association for the past 71 years.