Jackson Barrett Mahon, 78, Heroic World War II Flier
By William H. Honan,, December 20, 1999
Jackson Barrett Mahon, an American fighter pilot shot down over France in World War II who was one of several Allied airmen thought to have inspired the 1963 movie "The Great Escape," died on Dec. 4 in a hospice in Las Vegas. He was 78.
The cause was heart failure, his daughter Doris Keating Schlesinger said. Mr. Mahon lived in Henderson, Nev.
In 1941, when the war was raging in Europe but the United States had not yet been drawn in, Mr. Mahon, who was from Bakersfield, Calif., enlisted in Britain's Royal Air Force and began flying Spitfires on combat missions with Eagle Squadron 121, a unit composed of American pilots.
After completing 98 missions and shooting down nine enemy aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Mahon was reported missing in 1942 after a raid over northern France. The British Air Ministry awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross while he was missing; the citation called him "an extremely skillful and confident pilot, whose courage, especially when attacking superior numbers of hostile aircraft, has been unsurpassed."
Mr. Mahon, who went down over Dieppe, wound up a German prisoner at Stalag Luft III in Polish Silesia. Over the next two years, he and other P.O.W.'s stealthily dug tunnels under the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the camp.
But Mr. Mahon could not wait for the tunnel to be finished. He seized a chance to break out alone and made it to the Czech border, where he was captured.
He escaped again, only to be recaptured and placed in solitary confinement. "That was what saved his life," Ms. Schlesinger said. "When the tunnel was ready, he was still locked up and couldn't join the others who went through it. Most of them were killed."
In all, 76 British airmen escaped through the tunnel, but only 3 made it back to Britain. Within a few days, 50 were captured and executed on the personal instructions of Hitler. The rest were quickly returned to other P.O.W. camps.
Mr. Mahon was finally liberated by the Third Army under Gen. George S. Patton Jr. in 1945.
The story of the escape was first told in the 1949 book "The Great Escape" by Paul Brickall, an Australian flier who survived Stalag Luft III and drew on his own experience. The story was retold on television in 1951 and then in the movie of the same name, which contained a purely fictional motorcycle chase, inserted to allow its star, Steve McQueen, to show off his jumping skill. Mr. Mahon was recruited as technical adviser on the film.
Last August, after the death of John Dortch Lewis, an American survivor of Stalag Luft III, friends of Mr. Lewis's asserted that he had been the model for the irascible and surly character played by Mr. McQueen. Mr. Brickall met Mr. Lewis after the war and confirmed that he had been a prisoner at Stalag Luft III, but Mr. Lewis never went through the tunnel. After three foiled attempts, he escaped by bolting from a German train carrying P.O.W.'s.
Another claimant was Sydney M. Pozer, a Canadian gunner shot down in a British bomber. Mr. Pozer, who died in 1996, survived because he drew a short straw in the lottery that preceded the breakout and he never went through the tunnel.
After the war, Mr. Mahon became the personal pilot and later business manager for the actor Errol Flynn.
Later, he and Peter Butterworth, a former fellow P.O.W., set up the International Film Investment Corporation, which marketed American films overseas.
Born on Feb. 5, 1921, Mr. Mahon attended the Page Military Academy in Los Angeles and then graduated from Laguna Blanca Boys School in Santa Barbara, Calif.
In addition to his daughter Doris Keating Schlesinger of Henderson, Nev., Mr. Mahon is survived by his wife, Clelle Ann McAllister of Henderson; three other children, Chandos Mahon of Chatsworth, Calif., Sharon Scheur of Williamsville, N.Y., and Summerlin, Nev., and Barrett Mahon of Agoura Hills, Calif.; and six grandchildren.
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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov