Joseph McCarthy with King George VI, May, 1943
Joseph McCarthy, 79, Pilot in German Dam-Buster Raid
By Robert McG. Thomas Jr,, 5 October 1998
NEW YORK -- It was considered quite a show at the time: a brazen British bombing raid in 1943 on a trio of strategic German dams carried out with such high-spirited elan, employing such delightfully preposterous techniques and producing such spectacular success that it gave an immediate boost to battered British morale in World War II.
One of the last surviving pilots, Joseph C. McCarthy, an American at the time of the raid, died of emphysema at his home in Virginia Beach, Va., on Sept. 6 at age 79.
The dam-busting raid of May 16 made instant heroes of the 11 pilots who survived the mission, which claimed eight of the raid's 19 Lancaster bombers and 53 of their 133 crewmen. Their remarkable bouncing bombs wreaked watery havoc on the industrial Ruhr valley, breaching two of the dams and sending almost half a billion tons of water cascading down river channels in walls 50 feet high, smashing bridges, factories and power plants for 100 miles.
Some have argued that it was the turning point of the war, but even if it was not, the raid is recalled so fondly even today that it sends chills down British spines every time the 1955 film "The Dam Busters" is shown on television.
For all the British pride in their beloved dam busters, if it can be said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it would not be much more of an exaggeration to suggest that the attack on the Ruhr dams was wrought in part on the flying fields of New York City, for that is where McCarthy learned to fly.
As the lone American in 617 Squadron, the secret and now storied unit formed and trained expressly to carry out the low-flying raid, McCarthy was the Bronx-bred man whom the British knew as Big Joe.
McCarthy was a native of St. James, Long Island, who grew up in the Bronx, where a grandfather had been a deputy sheriff and his father was a New York City fireman. He worked as a lifeguard at Coney Island and learned to fly as a teen-ager. He got into the fray because he had been so eager to see aerial action against the Germans that he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force months before the United States entered the war in December 1941.
At a time when the average life expectancy of a bomber pilot was 16 missions, McCarthy, like the other crack pilots recruited for the Ruhr raid, had established his flying expertise by completing 30 bombing runs over Germany. After the raid he completed 40 more.
He had also become a favorite of his fellow pilots. A 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound man known as the big blond American, McCarthy had a personality as outsized as his physique and an outspoken penchant for unrestrained American profanity that trumped the more timid oaths of his compatriots.
In the end McCarthy lost the cultural clash. By the time the war was over he had gone British, affecting a pipe, a walking stick and a dog on a leash. "If I'm going to be an officer and a gentleman," he said, "I'm going to have a crack at looking the part."
The transformation was so complete that to remain in the RCAF he became a Canadian citizen after the war, serving in a variety of military posts. They included an international assignment in Norfolk, Va., which led him to retire in 1969 to nearby Virginia Beach.
Few people there knew that he had been personally congratulated by King George VI and invested with the prestigious Distinguished Service Order for his role in what the British still recall as one of the most spectacular bombing raids in aviation history.
If it does not seem surprising that the same British military establishment that invented snooker should embrace the outlandish idea of skipping bombs across the water to destroy a dam, it was not whimsy but military expedience that produced the audacious scheme.
The dams holding back three rivers -- the Eder, the Moehne and the Sorpe -- emptying into the Ruhr, a Rhine tributary, were obvious enough military targets, because destroying them could do serious harm to the arms factories in Germany's industrial heartland.
The problem was how to do it. At a time when bombs sometimes missed their targets by as much as five miles, it was considered futile to try to make a direct hit on top of a dam, especially with a bomb big enough to cause a serious breach.
Since a dam's most vulnerable spot was at its base, beneath the waterline, torpedoes would have been an alternative, but the landlocked lakes were inaccessible to submarines. Yet the Germans had not taken the precaution of using a series of surface booms and underwater nets to protect the dams against torpedoes dropped from the air.
British military planners had written off any notion of attacking the dams until a brilliant, eccentric scientist named Barnes Wallis came up with the idea of bouncing rapidly backspinning cylinder bombs across the water until they hit the dam and crawled down its concrete face, where a hydrostatic trigger would set them off at the right depth.
The idea eventually won the approval of the British high command, who, after all, would not be the ones charged with flying through a wall of flak to deliver 10,000-pound bombs at a precise distance from a dam while flying at a precise, slow speed at an altitude of exactly 60 feet.
This was clearly a job for the colonials. Indeed, while the dog-fighting Battle of Britain had attracted a corps of swashbuckling British aristocrats, there were few among the British bomber pilots. Their ranks were filled from the Commonwealth countries of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and especially Canada.
By the time of the actual mission, the 617 Squadron had already laid the groundwork for the legend that would be reflected in the 1955 movie starring Michael Redgrave as Wallis and Richard Todd as Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
In 1993 McCarthy, as one of the three surviving dam-busting pilots, attended 50th-anniversary celebrations in England.
With the passage of time what had once seemed a jolly good show has lost some of its original luster, in part because the Germans quickly repaired the extensive damage and in part because more attention has been paid to the raid's human toll. More than 1,400 people drowned, among them some 750 slave laborers from half a dozen countries, including a contingent of Ukrainian women trapped in a padlocked compound.
McCarthy's bomb caused negligible damage, except to the dam. Although he delivered his bomb perfectly and it detonated as planned, his target was an earthen dam that absorbed much of its impact.
McCarthy is survived by his wife, Alice; two children, Joseph B. McCarthy and Karen Westergaard, both of Virginia Beach; a brother, Frank, of Glendale, and five grandchildren.
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© 1998 by Neil Mishalov