Thursday, September 11, 2008

Herschel Jessup McKee: Hoosier Daredevil

Danger And Thrills Mark Life Of Herschel Jessup McKee

Sought Adventure And Found It

By Rick Johnson, Indianapolis Star, December 22, 1963

The life and times of Herschel Jessup McKee may never become a book or movie, for the life of Herschel Jessup McKee is a saga too big for the belief of ordinary mortals.

McKee was a 17-year-old lad when he left Indianapolis in 1917 to fight in World War 1 and make the world safe for democracy.

In the 49 years since, McKee has been a French Foreign Legionnaire, a pilot with 12 of the Boche to his credit, and a decorated soldier with the Croix deGuerre and Medaille Militaire on his chest.

For 20 years he drove, flew, and often crashed, anything with wheels or wings on it.

There was still room in the saga for 19 years as an officer in the United States Army Air Corps and the United States Air Force…years almost cut short in the memorable and disastrous raid on the Ploesti oil fields.

Neither time nor Herschel McKee has stood still.

Today, the battle-scarred eagle is recovering from a stroke that affected his left side.

Until recently, he was confined to the West 10th Street Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

His condition has improved so much with therapy lately that he is now able to come home on weekend leaves with his wife, Mary Elizabeth, to their apartment on West Washington Street.

His speech was affected by the stroke, but with his scrapbooks, he can recount almost every episode of his life from Chateau Sallais to Ploesti in the air, and from Fresno, Calif., to Syracuse, N.Y., in racecars.

Newspapers called him “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die.”

Here is how it all began 46 years ago.

McKee was a student at Emmerich Manual Training High School when war broke out in Europe in 1914.

The newspapers told daily stories of armed clashes and predicted further turmoil as McKee tried to concentrate on his studies.

He left school in 1917 and took a job in the passbook department of the old National City Bank here.

But the routine of the bank bored Herschel. In March 1917, he left Indianapolis and got a job at the Colt Arms Company in Providence, R.I.

When McKee’s parents heard again from their son, he had joined the French Foreign Legion in New York, October 1917, and was on his way to France at the age of 17.

McKee trained with the Foreign Legion in the Algerian Desert and then saw service at the front in the battle of Champagne as a machine gunner. He then made application to the Lafayette Flying Corps.

He was accepted into the flying corps and assigned to Escadrille No. 314, a group made up of a few Americans, many French, and about 60 Russians.

McKee learned to fly quickly and capably in the three aircraft utilized 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.




Today, McKee shakes his head about the Spad.

“It flew just like a streamlined brick,” McKee said.

In a few months, McKee claimed 12 kills in action with the Germans. He was wounded once in the right arm by machine gun fire, but managed to return safely to his base for treatment.

But then his luck ran short. On Feb. 6, 1918, a shrapnel burst shattered McKee’s plane as he flew over the German lines.

It went down in flames, and he was captured by the Germans, who placed him in a barn that served as a makeshift hospital until his wounds healed. Then they put him in a prison camp at Bastatt Baden.

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.

“Dear Mother,

“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.

“Hershel McKee
“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.”

When he was discharged from French service after the war, he returned to America to begin a search, that for him, would never end.

“I don’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.

Neither was injured.

He flew and raced as often as injuries permitted.

In thrill shows, he rode a motorcycle at full speed through a flaming wall of boards.

Indianapolis Star Photo

He barnstormed all over the country and raced at AAA sanctioned events. He flew the mail from Chicago to St. Louis.

He crashed airplanes and cars and lived balanced on the razor’s edge.

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.

IMS Photo

In 1922, McKee and Elliott set a world’s speed record of 117.5 miles an hour at the Cotati racetrack 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 Speedway near San Francisco.

The car 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 in the shockcheck 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. Both spent weeks in the hospital before being released.

His injuries had not completely healed when he was involved in an air crash that claimed the life of one of his friends and put him back in the hospital with critical injuries.

On April 9, 1923, McKee and Edward Malone, also of Indianapolis, left a private airport near Los Angeles to do a little stunting in a two-place 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 suffered a skull fracture and a broken leg in the jump, but his friend died in the flaming 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 the 1926 “500,” he was a relief driver, but went without a ride then and until 1932, when Bob McDonough picked him up.

IMS Photo

In 1933, he rode with Chet Gardner, and experimented with two-way radio communication on the Sampson Special.

IMS Photo

IMS Photo

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.

IMS Photo

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.

In 1933, while McKee was taking a joyride over Chicago, the motor of his plane suddenly dropped off at 2,000 feet up.

He maintained control of the plane and spiraled safely to earth.

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 jumped 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.

In 1925, the young daredevil was commissioned 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 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. 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.

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 Bomb 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, the raid on the oil fields at Ploesti in Rumania.

“The casualties were 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.”

“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.”

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.

Indianapolis Star Photo

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. Therapy and care have helped him.

Mrs. McKee, who is a 5th grade teacher at Public School No. 50, said, “I’m going to have Herschel home for Christmas this year along with a few members of the family. It will be wonderful.”

As she spoke, her husband’s eyes poured over faded photographs of himself standing in front of a Spad and sitting in a racecar.

He had just relived the thrills of sitting in an open cockpit with the wind whistling past the struts, engine whining as he dived in pursuit of a German fighter with his twin-Vickers machine guns spitting.

He and Frank Elliott had just set the world speed record of 117 miles an hour.

A guy could almost smell the gunpowder and castor oil.


  1. As the Great Cousin of Herschel, thank you for keeping him alive throught this site. Many a nights my grandparents and family members would tell the stories of him and what he did. And to this day I still ponder why my mother was so suprised when I brought home my first motorcycle know the family bloodline... again Thank you for keeping his memory alive..

  2. Mark Elliott my great uncle is Frank Elliott. I remember uncle Frank and Vivian stopping by Mo. on his way to or from the Indy 500. His brother Clarence V. would spend the summers at our farm. I am pleased to read about his close friend Herschel. My own life is lived in racing the fast line. I would like to communicate with his cousin Thank you also. ME

  3. Herschel's older brother was my great grandfather Ralph "DeeDee" Herbert Mckee

    I'm in the process of starting a new filing area for the grand paternal McKee, and grand maternal Chapin family archives over the summer which will include digital scanning of photos.

    I have the Black Watch tam and "Pendleton" (Not regulation Tartan) kilt that Herschel wore in the '42, '43 portrait representing full Scottish attire; including a pretty worn out silver mounted Grouse claw pin.

    Great-great: (Herschel's parents)
    James Marion McKee
    Laura "Raiden" McKee

    My great-grandfather was Ralph "DeeDee" Herbert McKee the older brother of Herschel.
    <> b. 1894-? <> d. 1971?

    My grand father was 3. Charles Chester McKee the son of Ralph & (Grandma Fisher) . <> b. 9/21/1913? d. 2001
    1. Brother - Marion McKee
    2. Fern Florence McKee

    The SoCal McKee clan emigrated from Indianapolis in the 1950's with Ralph and his next bride Gladys _. "MaMaKee".

    My father was 2. Charles David McKee b. 12/1/43 d. 11/9/74 the oldest son of Charles & Catherine Margaret Akermann b. 1/12/18 d. 5/11

    1. Virgina Ellen McKee-Babbit-Pascucci b. 1/12/38 1 son. Thomas Charles Babbitt b. 4/19/1961
    3. James Allen McKee b. 11/14/48 d. 7/2003. 1 son/Benjamin Anthony McKee 10/12/71
    4. Twila Anne McKee-Sandoval-Bennett 9/12/53 1st son Jason Alexander Sandoval b. 9/13/71, 2nd son Benny George Sandoval III b. 12/13/73

    Catherine was the matriarch of all family gatherings. Everybody loved her!

    Charles David McKee's children:
    1/ Cindy-Janeen Charlene McKee-Stewart b. 8/1/64, 2/ David Charles McKee b. 5/17/67, 3/a. Curtis _. McKee b. 7/22/71.

    Remembered satellite relatives:
    Aunt Laura, Uncle Ray - Deceased
    Aunt Kianna Young - Deceased
    Brandi - San Diego

    Well, that's the 4th gen. line-up from the nut house on the West Coast.

    C. J. "Sparkplug" Stewart
    Lake Elsinore, Ca.
    951-six-seven-four - five-seven-one-two

    Manu Forti ~ Now, let's go race!


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