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A Biography of

 James Michael Sweeney

1st Lieutenant USAAF
Air Medal-Ten Oak Leaf Clusters
Purple Heart- Posthumously
Killed in Action; Aug. 6, 1944

451st Bombardment Squadron
322nd Bombardment Group
9th Air Force
European Theater of Operations

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On March 21, 1919, Mike was born on the high desert of eastern New Mexico in the village of Tucumcari to Mary Alice and Alonzo Bennett Sweeney. A sister, Lonnie B, and a brother, Patrick, had preceded him. In 1922 Alonzo was killed in an oil field accident and Mary Alice found herself with the three children making her way in Amarillo, Texas. This she did successfully, not that the children did not add to her trials.

On occasion, to the wonderment of passersby, the family’s white dog appeared on the front lawn of the small apartment building in colors and hues never seen on a canine. The Sweeney kids had discovered the wonders of Rit dyes. On another occasion, sister Lonnie B was outside showing off a new flowery dress. Brother, Pat, grabbed a water hose and thoroughly wetted her down. Promptly turning off the water, he next ran out of sight. Mike had been watching the high jinks and decided to join in. To Pat’s delight, just as "Mama’s pet" was about to turn on the water, Mama caught him and began meting out punishment. Mike complained that Pat, not he, had done it. To which Mama retorted, " Well, you were thinking about doing it!" These minor scraps aside Mike developed into a tall well built youth with a natural talent for athletics. In high school, he had the great fortune to play football on Blair Cherry’s team.

Among old timers in the Texas panhandle, Coach Cherry is a legend. A student of the game he was a perfectionist. In the seven years he coached Amarillo High, his double wingback teams won 80 games, lost only one at home on Butler Field and won three consecutive state championships (1934, 35 and 36). Mike played end on the 1936 team. In the semifinal game against a Fort Worth team, he caught two passes from the hands of Bob Clesson for touchdowns.

The state championship game was played before 17,000 fans at Butler Field against Kerrville Tivy. "Skinny" Mike Sweeney blocked two punts in the first half. One he recovered and ran for a touchdown. The other was run for a touchdown by teammate Pat Toombs. These were enough touchdowns to win the game. This was the last game at Butler Field for Mike and Coach Cherry. Mike was elected all-state end and received an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin. Coach Cherry also moved on to the University as end coach.

Mike played on the 1937 Frosh team and lettered on the varsity in 1938, 40,and 41. Although, the 1 win-8 loss 1938 season was a poor showing for the team, Mike showed considerable promise. According to one scribe he was "destined to be one of the greatest ends to wear the Orange and White". Unfortunately, his season was cut short by a knee injury in the SMU game. To assure a sound recovery, he laid out of school in 1939 while the team improved considerably, finishing with a 5 win-4 loss record.

While the team competed, Mike worked as a roustabout in the Louisiana oil fields until a notorious bully in the crew provoked Mike into a barroom fight. The report that comes down to us is that Mike ended the dispute by knocking the man out cold. For fear that the bully would do something violent when he awoke or the law might take a dim view of fighting, friends immediately put Mike on a bus to Amarillo sans baggage. Upon arriving home Mama started berating him for fighting. To which Mike protested, "But Mama, I only hit him once!"

Once might well have been enough. Mike had boxed in Golden Gloves at the state level while in high school and college. "Skinny" Mike Sweeney was now 6’3" and weighed over 190 lb: a heavy weight. A few of the male relatives had become excited by the prospect of having a real prizefighter in the family. Mike’s boxing career was abruptly terminated however, when he was over-matched and promptly knocked out. His coach’s advise was: "Do not let him in the ring again. He has a glass jaw."

The 1940 and 1941 football seasons were successes ending in records of 8-2 and 8-1-1 respectively. Mike’s performance drew kudos such as: "razzle-dazzling," "smashing end play," "at his peak," "canny judgment and finesse," "played great ball," "great," "fiercely rushed" and "swell catch." He was known for his stalwart defense but also blocked, caught passes and occasionally lateraled off to a trailing back.

His 1940 season ended in early November with an ankle break in the SMU game. The month was brightened by his secret marriage to Mary Emma Finely on November 29th. {Coincidentally, the first flight of a B26 "Martin Marauder" took place on the same day.} The secret only lasted to September of the next year when he and the other married men on the team posed for the local paper. By the end of the 1941 season the squad was " considered the grandest yet collected under the Orange and White." Mike and 15 of his classmates played their final football game on December 6, 1941. They won in a romp: 71 to 7 before a delirious crowd in Texas University Memorial Stadium. The next day the world changed forever.

He received a BS in Physical Education on 1 June 1942 and promptly began an Army enlistment. In the following February he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and awarded the aviator’s silver wings. Training in the B26 occurred at MacDill Field, Florida followed by a transfer to England and the European Theater of Operation (ETO) in September of 1943. Mike’s name first appears in the official war diary of the 451st Bombardment Squadron on April 24, 1944 on the occasion of his promotion to 1st Lieutenant.

The diary writers made laconic entries each day that there was combat. Despite the obvious bravado, the reality of the situation comes through. Combat flying was frustrating, stressful if not terrifying and very dangerous. It was not unusual to send out 35 B26’s to destroy one railroad bridge and not strike the bridge despite dropping tons of bombs. During the bomb run flak could not be avoided, only endured. Clouds obscured targets, equipment failed and crews lost their way.

The most obvious indication of the extreme stress was the routine DS (detached service) assignment of crewmen to local hotels such as Coombe House and Walhampton House for "7 days of much needed rest." Flak was the big problem. On occasion, it was so intense and close that the planes were pushed violently around the sky. Accurate bombing was not possible.

Most planes came home from individual missions. Many were battle damaged but limped home safely. A few crashed landed and occasionally they just blew up in the air. In September of 1943, Randolph Hearst Jr. cheerily reported, "Marauders lose only one-half of one percent per mission." This is cold comfort if you fly into combat 68 times. Then the chances of not coming back are 30%. By comparison, the odds are considerably better in a play of Russian roulette with a six-shooter.

The extent to which the danger was or was not an intrinsic characteristic of the B26 is still hotly debated. The full truth will probably be hidden forever in the "fog of war." However, part of the truth is that the gallant crews wheeling the B26s took the battle to the enemy. They ground down his ability to resist the Allied Armies on the ground. The fury of their attack reached a peak at the Normandy beaches minutes before Zero Hour on D-day, June 6 1944. 400 B26’s were assigned to the attack. Darkness, clouds and rain over southern England caused crashes, midair collisions, and ditchings. Some were forced to turn back. 300, including Mike and his crew, succeeded in forming up, even if it was a single plane "formation," and pressed on over the invasion armada. They raked the beaches moments before the high altitude heavy bombers did the same. The first troops stormed the beaches minutes later.

Another part of the truth is that the B26 brought Mike home 67 times. On Aug. 6,1944, the 68th mission was flown. Mike was piloting the "Impatient Virgin II" (#41-34951, a B-26C Model out of the Omaha facility) on an afternoon mission to the fuel dump at Foret d’Andaine, France. "He was attempting a single-engine landing on a Normandy landing strip when the other engine cut out. The flak riddled ship was already covered with gas and crashed into a fuel tank and caught fire." Killed with Mike were the co-pilot, Lt. Douglas L. Hartrant, and the bombardier, T/Sgt. George E. Heiser. The surviving crewmembers were S/Sgt. Fred G. Lux, T/Sgt. Guy Perciballi, and S/Sgt. Melvin E. Pillow. Pillow was credited with rescuing Perciballi from the burning plane. Regrettably, Perciballi died on the way to the hospital.

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Sweeney Hartrant Heise Lux Edward Jackson

Pillow

       
Previously identified as Guy Perciballi
 

On Aug. 18, Mama wrote Mike a letter. It reads in part, "My Dear Son, I was very thrilled to get your letter with the news of your expected return soon. …Today is B’s birthday & we all have gifts but she has had to make her own birthday cake..."

On the same day, the news of Mike’s death reached Amarillo and in late afternoon was relayed to Mama and sister, Lonnie B, in the Berkshire County town of Dalton, Massachusetts.

On that same day my Father intercepted me as I came cross-lots into our backyard. He told me my Uncle Mike had been killed. I was sad but not as sad as I knew Grandmother and Mother must be. As I sat on the running board of our ’35 Packard in the late afternoon of that fine summer day, I could not understand my feelings, what had happened and what it meant. Perhaps, I was too young.

The next day the front page of the Amarillo Daily News announced, "Lt. James Mike Sweeney has been killed in action. … He attended the University of Texas where he became one of the school’s football greats." The accompanying picture was of Mike in an overseas cap wearing earphones and a white scarf. The sports section carried a picture of him from his high school days.

After the war, Mike was brought back to Amarillo. He now rests with his parents in Llano Cemetery.

James Michael Sweeney died without issue.

Post Script:
When crewman Melvin Pillow visited Mike’s widow, Mary Emma, Melvin asked, in passing, if she had received the diamond ring Mike bought for her. She had not but she made inquires to say the least. Raised sand, rattled cages, spit tacks-she did it all. It developed that Mike played bridge and for money too. His Mama and sister had taught him well enough to win the money for a diamond ring. In the end, the Red Cross delivered the ring to Mary Emma.

Prepared by:
Charles B. Johnson
4/25/2002
Revised: 6/21/02

Additional Information added August 20, 2007:
I respectfully would like to make a correction to the following dedication page - James Sweeney.

Marauderman's Name: Edward Jackson
Bomb Group: 322
Bomb Squadron: 451
Years in service: 4
Graduation Class: N/A
Class Location: MacDill Field, Chicago, IL, (Army Air Forces Technical School), Kelly Field, Comments: The photograph shown on this page of Lt. James Sweeney is incorrect as to identifying the following crew members:

Second from right is Edward Jackson (Radio Operator) not Guy Perciballi
Second from left standing next to Lt. Sweeney is Lt. George J. Smith (Co-Pilot) (KIA 8/6/44 also)
Third from left is the navigator/bombardier but is not Heisler
This picture is Lt. Sweeney's first crew. The ship's name was Smitty's Folly. My uncle was Edward Jackson (MIA and Evadee, returned on 9/6/44)

If you could relay this to Mr. Johnson with my deepest respect and admiration. My uncle spoke highly of him.

-Gerry Zatorski

 

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