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Tuesday October 20, 2009

Shot down by 'friendly fire' in two wars, ace fighter pilot still loved his job

Even two years of harsh treatment in a Chinese prison couldn't break his spirit

Special to The Globe and Mail

OTTAWA -- Sitting in a Chinese prison cell for 24 months during a harsh and lonely captivity, Andy MacKenzie of the Royal Canadian Air Force had plenty of time to think about what had gone wrong on Dec. 5, 1952.

Mr. Mackenzie, a highly experienced fighter pilot on exchange with the United States Air Force in Korea, had been flying an F-86 Sabre jet when he was shot down by a comrade. It was the second time, in two wars, that he'd been shot down by American so-called friendly fire.

Flying at 42,000 feet along the western coast of Korea over the Yellow Sea toward the mouth of the Yalu River, Mr. MacKenzie, one of 22 RCAF pilots to fly in combat during the Korean War, had spotted two enemy MiG-15 jets. Informing his flight leader that he was going after them, he peeled off in pursuit.

Unfortunately, Major Jack Saunders of the 139th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 51st Interceptor Wing, didn't hear him and headed in the opposite direction after his own targets. Breaking off his attack - it was strictly forbidden to attack without cover - Mr. MacKenzie was climbing to rejoin his leader when another Sabre raked his jet with fire. Since Sabres and MiG-15s both featured swept-back wings, they were sometimes mistaken for each other in the heat of battle.

As Major Saunders engaged two MiGs, Mr. MacKenzie, a Second World War ace with 8¼ victories, noticed bullets streaking just over his head.

"Before I could take any evasive action, my canopy was blown off. There were two strikes on my right elevator, followed by three more in rapid succession on the fuselage. I tried to break off to evade more fire, but my aircraft was out of control. I was starting to roll to the left and couldn't stop. In a few seconds I was barrelling to earth. I bailed out," Mr. MacKenzie told aviation historian Larry Milberry decades later.

A few minutes later, Mr. MacKenzie came to rest on the ground. Unfortunately, Communist Chinese soldiers were waiting for him. Now his nightmare started, a hellishly long one that included poor food, intensive interrogations and 18 months spent in solitary confinement in Manchuria. His captors did their best to break his spirit but he never gave up hope.

It was hard, though.

"The worst thing about being a prisoner of war was that I had no means of knowing whether my lovely wife, Joyce, and our four young children knew whether I was alive or dead, and indeed it was 18 months before they got the good news," he said decades later.

Mr. MacKenzie was born in 1920 in Montreal. Attending West Hill High School, he excelled in sports. A few years spent delivering The Gazette led to a job at the newspaper after he graduated. When the war broke out in 1939, he knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot. He enlisted on April 3, 1940, and received his wings eight months later.

It took two years to get to the fighting, though, because the brass kept him in Canada as an instructor. Finally, his nagging paid off and he shipped to Britain in April, 1943.

Posted to 421 Squadron, he and his fellow pilots flew sweeps over occupied France. "The Huns were few and far between and although I did get a good squirt at a FW-190, which was destroyed, it was shared with three other pilots."

Some time later, Mr. MacKenzie struck up a friendship with the legendary George (Buzz) Beurling, Canada's top-scoring ace. Mr. MacKenzie learned a lot from his mentor, which made him a more confident and aggressive fighter pilot.

On Dec. 20, 1943, he was flying as No. 2 to the wing leader when he spotted "a gaggle of Huns." Unable to control his "youthful exuberance," he broke formation and shot down two Fulke-Wolf 190s. Then he got his hat trick when he shot down a third German.

It was an extraordinarily successful mission for the young pilot, but he was lucky not to be sent home in disgrace because he had broken the cardinal rule: "A No. 2 just does not leave his leader," he said. However, all was forgiven and he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Colonel Bob Middlemiss of Barrie, Ont., first met Mr. MacKenzie in 1943, at the Kenley Aerodrome. They spent a lot of time together unwinding in the officers' mess. "He was happy-go-lucky, full of life," Col. Middlemiss said. "He was an excellent pilot and a good leader. People liked him and he had charisma and charm."

A month after being posted to 403 Squadron, Mr. MacKenzie was shot down by American forces on June 14, 1944, as he was providing ground support. Too low to bail out, he managed to land his Spitfire IX on its belly.

On Aug. 10, he was informed he'd done enough. After 257 combat missions, he was going home. Back in Canada, he took over 135 Squadron and trained his pilots for the invasion of Japan, but that became unnecessary after the Americans dropped the bombs.

Mr. MacKenzie took his release and tried to make a go of it as a civilian, but he found he missed the air force and re-joined in 1946.

Six years later, in 1951, by now promoted to squadron leader, Mr. MacKenzie was given command of 441 Squadron, one of the dozen squadrons sent to Europe equipped with the new Sabre jet to keep the peace against the Soviet Union and its client states.

Canada and its United Nations allies were fighting in Korea and the RCAF was expanding dramatically, to a high of 56,000 men and women and 2,000 aircraft by the end of the decade. It was the golden age of the RCAF and Mr. MacKenzie was in the middle of it.

Then he found himself in the Chinese prison, where he endured harsh treatment, but wasn't physically tortured. Always cold and hungry, he refused to co-operate and provide military secrets. As punishment, he was forced, for three long months, to sit at attention all day on the edge of his bed.

In 1997, he described his time in solitary: "Every minute was an hour and every hour was a day and every day was a week. Nobody knew I was still alive. Every day, [the Chinese] reminded me they could shoot me and nobody would know the difference."

Finally, in April, 1953, things changed for the better. "He got a bigger room, the guards were more friendly, he was given books to read. He also made contact with one of the other prisoners," wrote aviation historian Carl Mills. After he found out that an armistice had been signed to end the fighting, Mr. MacKenzie decided to make things a bit easier on himself and offered to draft a statement.

"The problem was, how was he shot down deep in China but picked up in North Korea? The answer was simple enough, he had drifted to North Korea on his parachute! This document completed, they next tried to achieve another about germ warfare. MacKenzie went berserk, which completely unnerved them," Mr. Mills wrote.

Finally, two years to the minute after he had been shot down, Mr. MacKenzie, now 70 pounds lighter, walked into freedom when he crossed into Hong Kong on Dec. 5, 1954. During his imprisonment, his mother had died without knowing if her son were alive or dead.

Back in Canada, Mr. MacKenzie served in various staff positions before he retired in 1967. He never rose above squadron leader, though. Mr. Milberry, the aviation historian, thought the "confession" might have had something to do with that. "The RCAF equivocated in its treatment of [him]. He was not disciplined or reprimanded and his career continued for another dozen years. On the other hand, he was never promoted again," he wrote in Canada's Air Force at War and Peace.

As a civilian, Mr. MacKenzie worked as a commissioner for the Canadian Pension Commission. He sold real estate and cars, then raised cattle as a gentleman farmer in Oxford Mills, Ont. Over the years, he often got together with his fellow fighter pilots through reunions, sharing precious memories forged in the heat of aerial combat in two wars.

Andrew MacKenzie Andrew Robert MacKenzie was born on Aug. 10, 1920, in Montreal. He died of cancer in Kemptville, Ont., on Sept. 21, 2009. He was 89. He leaves his wife, Alison, sons Ron and Scott and daughter Tara. He was predeceased by his first wife, Joyce, and children Robert and Joanne.

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