Hometown Heroes: Coach
McMahan’s legacy is one of heroism

December 25, 2015
Santa Paula News

As a child I sat in the stands of the Darrel McMahan gymnasium in Santa Paula, a wide-eyed spectator of the high school athletes I had always looked up to. I even spent my own time on those same basketball courts as a member of the city’s recreational basketball league.

In high school, I spent countless hours in the gym, cheering on my classmates, and performing as part of pep rallies. But if you had asked me the story behind the man for whom the gym was named, my best response would have only been, “good question.”

And it is a good question.

The walls of that gym have witnessed momentous wins, and heartbreaking losses. They have welcomed in generations of students, parents, and athletes. And I’d argue that most of those welcomed inside those walls would have also been unable to answer the question of just who Darrel McMahan was.

Some may have been able to remember him as their football coach. Others, as their teacher. Some may have known him as the dean of students, a position he held at Santa Paula High School through the 1960s. 

But there was another, much more impressive, story that preceded McMahan’s time as a member of the Santa Paula community – a story he never really shared. Not even with his family. 

When McMahan, or Mac as he was fondly called, passed away in 1990, the story of his service during World War II might have been lost with him. But tucked away with his belongings was a weathered scrapbook with an image of a silver military plane on the cover. The bindings loose and worn. The pages torn and discolored. 

Inside are newspaper clippings, official U.S. Army photos, and certificates – memories McMahan’s mother proudly collected while her son while serving overseas. It is all that is left of McMahan’s war story. It is, perhaps, all that is needed.

McMahan was a native of Converse, Ind., but spent most of his life as a resident of the central coast of California – a move his mother made shortly after she lost her husband. McMahan was just 7 years old.

After graduating from Paso Robles High School in 1942, McMahan enlisted in the Army, focusing his interests primarily in serving as a pilot. 

McMahan was eventually attached to the 62nd Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force as a lieutenant and pilot of a P-47 Thunderbolt. He was sent overseas in 1944, and flew missions at the height of combat in Europe.

McMahan’s service was notable prior to September 1944. But the sacrifices he made on September 2 of that year changed the course of the young 20-year-old’s life, and how he would be remembered, especially by a young lieutenant from Melbourne, Australia. 

War correspondent, Ted Malone, wrote the following as part of his Oct. 2, 1944, radio broadcast from London:

“Lieutenant Colonel David C. Schilling of Traverse City, Michigan, led a group of 8th Fighter Command Thunderbolts in on a raid into Belgium the other afternoon, and brought back one of the truly great stories of the war. First Lieutenant Jack W. Pierce of Melbourne, Australia, with Second Lieutenant Darrel McMahan as his wing man, went down to strafe some engines and trucks that they saw hauling supplies. On their first dive, the two pilots threw enough shells into the boiler of a locomotive to blow it clear off the tracks, and then roaring the length of the train, they set every car afire.” 

“Wheeling and peeling off to come in again, they saw the trucks hidden along the road, and coming in close to make every shot count, Lieutenant Pierce mushed into some trees and damaged his ship. The heavy branches ripped off his right flap and smashed the leading edge of his right wing. For a second, the ship shuddered as if it had been slapped and then, refusing to go down, it crawled slowly back into the sky leaning a little on one wing.”

“Lieutenant McMahan immediately began circling the wounded ship, calling encouragement and setting their course for the shortest flight home. All went well until they neared the coast, when a wall of flak suddenly loomed up before them. As Lieutenant Pierce described it, the flak started to come up and there wasn’t a thing they could do. ‘We were at 2,000 feet of perfect altitude for the guns and I could neither maneuver nor run for it.’”

“Lieutenant McMahan was up ahead and when he saw what was happening, he threw all caution to the winds and turned and did a virtual suicide dive straight into the flak guns. A fighter coming in like that is always a setup for aircraft, but on those rare times he gets in, he usually gets the flak guns. McMahan dove straight into the guns three times. On the third pass they hit him, but he kept on going. By that time, Pierce said, ‘I was a little passed, and putting my damaged ship into a dive, I picked up enough speed to get away from them, but Mac shooting up those guns was the nerviest thing I ever saw. I don’t know how the kid ever came through.’”

McMahan’s efforts that day earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award that can be given to a member of the United States Army. The citation synopsis reads as follows:

“First Lieutenant (Air Corps) Darrel E. McMahan (ASN: 0-763699), United States Army Air Forces, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-47 Fighter Airplane in the 62d Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, EIGHTH Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy forces on 2 September 1944. On that date, First Lieutenant McMahan shot down one enemy airplane. First Lieutenant McMahan’s unquestionable valor in aerial combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 8th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.”

McMahan’s service didn’t end there.

On Sept. 17, 1944, just days after his heroic efforts over Belgium, McMahan was flying a mission over Holland when he came under heavy fire. McMahan was able to make a safe landing in his nearly unrecognizable P-47, but not without the efforts of a fellow pilot from Berkeley, Calif., who guided him home by radio – a pilot who, McMahan said, saved his life.

]That mission was McMahan’s last. His right arm was broken in two places, his right kneecap was splintered, and he had multiple fractures in his right leg. After 60 missions and 195 hours in the air, McMahan was sent back to the United States to recover at the Santa Ana Army Air Base Hospital. 

When he was able to leave the hospital, still suited in a cast on one side from hip to toe, and from shoulder to fingertip, McMahan joined some friends on a trip to the snow in Idyllwild, Calif. There, they were welcomed into the home of a young woman who had lost her brother in the war. Bud, a Marine who was killed in Guam, left behind a young widow named Alice McGinnis. Bud’s sister invited Alice to her house, encouraging her to come meet an especially nice young airman who had recently returned from the war. Darrel and Alice McMahan were married three months later.“Mac was kind of lost for a while there after the war,” Alice said. “He was working, but he’d find ways to watch football games when he could.”

McMahan told Alice that he credited a lot of his success in the war to his high school football coach. So, in turn, McMahan decided to become a coach himself.

He enrolled in courses at San Jose State University, majoring in history. His first job out of college was in Visalia, where he taught high school biology and served as the basketball coach. He was eventually led to Santa Paula High School where he served as a teacher, football coach, dean of students, and principal until he retired in 1981.  For his commitment to the students of Santa Paula, the boy’s gym was named in his honor – a standing tribute to a life well lived.

McMahan was able to pull flak from his arm for years after the war – a constant reminder of the missions he flew over Europe. But still, he’d never talk about. He might have joked here or there, Alice said, but he never gave details. His students knew the slight limp was from a war wound, but they didn’t know where or how it happened. At just 20, McMahan had been witness to the horrifying reality of war – it was more than some of his students, or even his family, could have ever imagined.

In his October 1944 broadcast, Malone wrote two sentences that preceded the story about McMahan’s heroic efforts – two sentences that perhaps best describe what was asked of the countless teenagers and young men sent to combat:

“There are thousands of stories every day, but no two are alike because they are about different boys. And yet nearly all have one thing in common – boys behaving like men.”

Jannette Jauregui is a native of Santa Paula, and is the author of three books, including Of War and Life: A Decade of Stories, and Ventura County Veterans: World War II to Vietnam. Jannette welcomes story ideas for Hometown Heroes from throughout Ventura County. Those interested in submitting a story idea may contact Jannette via e-mail at hometownheroes805@gmail.com.

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