ALGENE KEY COMMANDING OFFICER OF 66m Sq.|
Early flights out of Shipdham did not enjoy the luxury of accompaniment by the 'Little Friends,' and the Luftwaffe too~ full advantage. Life always hung on the expertise of every crew member. The courage of those who flew, despite overwhelming odds, can never be overstated.
From Will Lundy's record of the 66th Sq. comes a memory of the late Algene Key, C.O. of the 66th Squadron, early pioneer in aviation, and valorous participant in WWII. Long before the Japanese undertook to start the War at Pearl Harbor, Algene and his brother Fred set an endurance record, flying 653 hours & 27 minutes on a noisy trip around their hometown that took 27 days. (That record was never beaten until the Astronauts took off.)
The people of Meridian, Mississippi were strongly supportive of their first attempt, but their enthusiasm waned with continued efforts. On the third attempt, the droning sounds of the overhead plane that continued through the nights became an real irritant; and their air-to-air refueling was a novelty at first, but less impressive as 'Ole Miss' rattled on.
Their friend, James Keeton, brought fuel and supplies to the brothers, early proof that air to air refueling was possible. Fred sometimes dazzled the spectators by walking on the wing, and straddling the engine to inspect gas lines--with no parachute.
When the record was broken and the plane came down, it was the biggest celebration Meridian ever held. 30,000 people gathered at the airport to watch the plane come in, and reporters from all over the country flocked to the tiny airport which had just been renamed Key Field.
Those barnstorming pioneers and others like them ignited the spirit of aviation in the youth of America. When WWII began, adventurous young men were eager to fling themselves into that colorful sphere. Among those whose goals were shaped by those early airmen was Bob Lehnhausen. "As a new pilot, when I found myself in the same Squadron and in the same room with my boyhood hero, Algene Key, it was unbelievable to me," he recalled.
Even before the war began, both Key brothers engaged in training airmen in the National Guard. The move from barnstormers to military was not a difficult transition, and when the Guard was activated, Fred and Al went to Langley Field, Virginia for B-17 training. They distinguished themselves in the Pacific Theatre in bomb runs and Zero kills.
When McArthur departed from Java, the Key brothers assisted in evacuating him, troops and many civilians to Australia. Fred's mission numbers were completed, and he assumed administrative and teaching positions in this country. Later, when Al was assigned to B-29's, it was his brother who checked him out.
According to historian Stephen Owen, when WWII came, Fred and Algene had more flying time than any two pilots or earth. Despite that, they were almost rejected from the service, as both were colorblind! Interestingly, their bombing skill was heightened because of this disadvantage. When they were over enemy territory, shapes of objects stood out, uncluttered by colored objects around them. Honoring the plane that brought them world recognition, Fred called his plane Ole Miss II; AI's was Ole Miss III.
Among the early ones at Barksdale Field, Louisiana was Al Key. He was assigned to fly antisubmarine patrol in the Gulf of Mexico, mostly at night, from Florida to Texas. Captain Key was Commander of the 66th Squadron. He was promoted to Major about the time the 44th was transferred to Will Rogers Field, Oklahoma.
Continuing his loyalty to his first plane, his B-24 became Ole Miss III. He arrived in England during a time when missions were scrubbed because of bad weather and mechanical failures. Nevertheless, opportunity came, and his skil and courage were exemplified on his fourth mission. In his book A FLIGHT TO REMEMBER, Steven Owens described the event:
"On a sortie in ajoint raid with Flying Fortresses on January 20, 1943 on Romilly-Sur-Saine while attacking German positions in France, he encounterd a direct enemy attack by two German fighters. They nose dived his ship coming from the sun. A writer said of the incident: 'Machine gun bullets and cannon shell poured into Major Key's ship like hailstones, mortally wounding his right waist gunner (S/Sgt. Wilmer G. Lund). At the first flimpse of the fighters straight ahead, Key took a quick survey of the other Liberators around him and saw that he had maneuvering room then did something only the most skilled and courageous pilot would and could do: He threw his huge bomber directly into the path of the fighters and forced them off their course of attack and into position where scores of Liberator guns were able to get direct hits.' Though the bullet riddled airplane was nearly uncontrollable, Al and his crew managed to salvo their bombs over the target and limp the crippled plane, Princess Charlotte/Sure Shot, back over the Channel to England."
Algene's last mission was January 3, 1943 to St. Nazaire on the Avenger. Apparently the dangers of his four missions became a wake-up call to higher authorities. Algene was too important to the war effort to place him in further danger, so he was taken off combat and transferred out of the group. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (the first member of the 44th to receive this honor), Distinguished Service Cross, British Distinguished Flying Cross and seven Bronze Stars. Despite Key's aggressive spirit in the air, President Mike remembers him as a shy and humble man on th( ground, with genuine consideration for those under his command.