However, there is much more to McKinney’s life experience than holding public office: He was one of Carter County’s and Tennessee’s most decorated soldiers of World War II.
McKinney, who grew up in the Gap Creek community, served five years with the U.S. Army Air Corps during the Big War. A hero by anyone’s calculations, McKinney was wounded three times and his plane was shot down four times. He was a member of the famous 391st Black Death Marauder Group, flying a total of 1,700 combat hours during 83 missions on which he served as bombardier, navigator and gunner.
McKinney was credited with the sinking of two German submarines – precision bombing plus – in early 1942 when he was putting in two years with an anti-submarine patrol before going to England.
The Carter Countian was wounded on his first combat mission in February 1943, again June 8, 1944, and the final time a month later on a mission over Paris. He survived two crews, members of which were killed while flying with him during the 28 months of air battle.
In a November 2000 interview with the STAR, McKinney noted that on the February 1943 mission, the first time he was wounded, the 391st drew its first blood in attacks on enemy territory. The Command Field Orders for that day called for 36 of the group’s B-26s to attack the Gilze/Rijen Airdome in Holland. “By this time, most of the combat airmen were fretting to drop their bombs on the target and when the formation went over enemy territory, three spare ships formed up and tagged along, a practice which was not commended by higher headquarters and not practiced on missions after that. I was the lone casualty that mission,” McKinney recalled.
A summary report of the operation revealed all 36 of the planes attacked the primary target, the first box dropping from an altitude of 12,000 feet and the second from 11,500. “Four and possibly five aircraft shelters received direct hits, as well as did several buildings. Ten of the group’s planes suffered bomb damage due to flak over the target area.” McKinney’s plane was one of those hit.
McKinney was the only man in the Army Air Corps to receive the British Flying Medal from the British Embassy. The citation which came with the medal noted that McKinney “when as a bombardier, he was wounded in action, but remained on the job, and released the bombs accurately, destroying the Maison La Fire Railroad Bridge.”
As a member of the famed 391st, McKinney’s group bombed targets such as airfields, marshalling yards, bridges and V-weapon sites in France and the Low Countries to help prepare for the invasion of Normandy. They attacked enemy defenses along the invasion beaches on June 6 and 7, 1944.
The group also contributed vital assistance to ground forces during the Battle of the Bulge by attacking heavily defended positions such as bridges and viaducts. For these missions performed without fighter escort in the face of intense flak and overwhelming attacks by enemy aircraft, the 391st was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation.
The citation noted: “On the morning of Dec. 23, 1944, aircraft of the 391st Bombardment Group were dispatched in an attack upon a railroad viaduct at Ahweiler, Germany. Despite the fact that fighter escort was lacking, and both the Pathfinder aircraft were forced out of the formation by intense, heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire, the formation gallantly continued to the target … Men who were wounded remained at their posts with their guns and continued firing, and the aircraft shot out of the sky went down with their guns still blazing at the enemy. In this heroic action the enemy lost 16 aircraft, and 3 probably destroyed, and 16 so badly damaged that they were driven from the conflict.”
The citation further noted “that afternoon, despite losses sustained earlier in the day, the 391st Bombardment Group displayed outstanding aggressiveness by preparing in record time an attack upon the heavily defended village of Neuerberg. Twenty-one aircraft were dispatched and attacked the target with outstanding results. On the following day the 391st group attacked with 19 aircraft the railroad bridge at Kons Karthaus, Germany. During the following three days, the group dealt fierce blows at other strategic enemy bridges, contributing vital assistance to the ground forces at a most critical time.”
McKinney’s group flew its last mission May 3, 1945.
McKinney was also holder of the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with 12 clusters, the Purple Heart with two clusters and Distinguished Unit Citation. Other medals received by McKinney included the European-African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, ETO Theatre Medal, and the American Campaign Medal.
McKinney died August 30, 2008, at the age of 90. Before his death, he, for some time had been a resident at Pine Ridge Care and Rehabilitation Center, where he was selected to the nursing home’s Wall of Fame.
McKinney was married to Sue Brockwell McKinney and is the father of Susanne Robbins and Kathy Smith of Elizabethton.