Melvin A. McKenzie played a critical role during America’s fighting retreat in the Pacific in the opening days of World War II. As a member of the 19th Bombardment Group, McKenzie was a part of the pioneering mission that ferried Army Air Corps front-line B-17 Flying Fortress bombers from California to the Philippines, where he was caught in the middle of the devastating Japanese attack that came only hours after Pearl Harbor. He worked tirelessly in the Southwest Pacific under the most austere conditions to strike back at an overpowering Japanese opponent, flying 25 combat missions during America’s darkest days of the war.
Born in 1916 in Monmouth, Maine, McKenzie longed to be a pilot. After receiving an engineering degree at the University of Maine in 1939, he was selected for flight training and earned his wings in 1940 at Randolph Field, Texas. He was subsequently assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group, which was equipped with the B-17B, and in May 1941 he participated in the first-ever mass trans-oceanic flight of bombers (26 B-l7Cs) from Hamilton Field California to Hickam Field, Hawaii, a one-way ferry mission for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In October 1941 the entire group, now equipped with B-l7Ds, executed a 10,000-mile flight to Clark Field as part of the initial preparations for the defense of the Philippines. First Lieutenant McKenzie was the duty officer at Clark Field in the early hours of 8 December 1941 and received the first alert that Pearl Harbor had been attacked; nine hours later the Japanese attacked the Philippines, destroying half the group’s aircraft. McKenzie was subsequently evacuated from Luzon to Mindanao and from there to Java in the Dutch East Indies, eventually reaching Australia in March 1942.
He continued fighting in the B-17, flying a total of 25 combat missions against various Japanese targets including one raid over Rabaul for which he was awarded the Silver Star. In November 1942 the remnants of the 19 BG redeployed stateside after almost a year of combat in which two-thirds of the original group had been either killed or captured. After World War II, McKenzie served an assignment as the commander of the Bomber Test Group at Eglin Field where he oversaw ordinance delivery testing on over a dozen new aircraft designs.
Later assigned to Japan during the Korean War, he flew several air transport missions to the peninsula in support of United Nations forces. For his last assignment, he worked on the Dyna-Soar (Dynamic Soaring) Project, a two-man reusable space plane launched on a Titan II rocket, which provided much of the early data used by the Space Shuttle program. Lieutenant Colonel McKenzie retired from the Air Force in 1962 after 23 years of service and currently resides in Tallahassee, Florida.