Note: This is the first in a series of stories detailing the exploits of the men and women who are either Abilene ISD alums or former Abilene ISD employees who served their country and are now deceased. Their names were submitted by family members or friends for inclusion on the Memorial Wall inside Memorial Park at Dyess Elementary School. The first dedication of names is planned for Veteran’s Day (Nov. 11, 2022). Those wishing to have their loved ones or friends recognized in the inaugural dedication ceremony must fill out the submission form by Sept. 15, 2022. The form can be found here.
Today’s story is about Capt. Mac Bowyer, a 1937 graduate of Abilene High School, who served as a P-51 fighter pilot with the 4th Fighter Group in the European Theatre during World War II. Bowyer, who later owned and operated West Texas Ranch Supply and Feed Co. in Abilene, passed away in 1988. His name was submitted by his granddaughter, Kelly Broyles, a teacher at Dyess Elementary School.
About 40 years ago, Abilene native Mac Bowyer – “Pappy Mac” as his grandchildren called him – made a trip to the commissary at Dyess Air Force Base along with his wife and their daughter, Rachel, to pick up a few groceries. While there he saw a photo on a wall that stopped him in his tracks and, no doubt, brought a ton of memories flooding back over him.
“My ‘Pappy Mac’ was a man of few words, but he told my grandmother and aunt to wait and that he would be right back,” said Kelly Broyles, Bowyer’s granddaughter and a teacher at Dyess Elementary School.
Little did Bowyer’s wife and daughter know that he left to return home to do some research on the P-51 fighter he flew in the European Theatre during World War II. When he returned to the commissary, he told both his wife and daughter to get in the car because they were going to the base commander’s house. Once there, he explained that the identifying letters on the plane – “WD KK” – were the ones that were on the plane he flew during his time in the skies over Europe.
The photo depicts Bowyer shooting down a German Messerschmitt during a dogfight. After explaining the photo to the base commander, Bowyer was given the photo, which hung in his bedroom until the day he died in 1988, succumbing to brain cancer at age 68.
But like so many of the Greatest Generation, Bowyer had a story to tell from his time spent in World War II, and it makes his surviving family especially proud of “Pappy Mac.”
In the Spring of 1944, Allied forces including the United States Army Air Corps, controlled the skies over Europe, pounding dug-in German infantry with bombs and cutting off supply lines by destroying tank and train convoys with fighters.
One of those young fighter pilots in the Army Air Corps was Bowyer, who after graduating from Abilene High School and then working for a short time in the oil field, enlisted in the Army, destined to become a fighter pilot.
After a series of adventures, including washing out of pilot training before getting a second chance to prove himself, Bowyer was sent to Bartow Army Base in Florida, where he trained on P-40s. After completing training, Bowyer was shipped to Europe to fly missions in the famed P-51 Mustang as part of the 4th Fighter Group based in Debden, Essex.
The 4th Fighter Group was the highest scoring fighter group in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), destroying 1,016 enemy aircraft on the ground and in the skies over Europe. The group flew Spitfires, Thunderbolts, and Mustangs while serving with the 2nd Air Division’s 65th Fighter Wing, part of the “Mighty 8th Air Force.” Originally comprised of the three American RAF Eagle Squadrons, the 4th was the first fighter group to penetrate German air space, the first to escort bombers over Berlin, and the first to lead a England-to-Russia shuttle mission.
In short, Bowyer was a fighter pilot flying one of the most iconic fighters in US military history as part of one of the most historic fighter wings ever assembled in the greatest conflict the world has ever known.
“Everybody looked up to a fighter pilot,” Bowyer told the Abilene Reporter-News’ Nancy Robinson in a 1984 story. “Some of my buddies and I were shipped to New York City and then to Debden. The real combat planes were so far ahead of what we trained in – more horsepower, better radios, more gadgets – and three days after leaving New York City we were on a fighter mission with the ‘Big Friends’ (nickname given to bombers).”
Soon Bowyer and the rest of the 4th Flight Wing were charged with softening the Germans for the coming invasion of Europe, which would happen, of course, on June 6, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy, France. On one particular mission in the aftermath of the invasion, Bowyer and 35 other members of his squadron were flying a mission deep into the heart of occupied France (approximately 35 miles south of Paris) with their sights set on a German munitions train.
The train, however, wasn’t moving because the Germans were short on fuel and the ammunition was being moved using horse-drawn carriages. Bowyer told Robinson that pilots had been trained to “get in, stay low and get out.” But after his strafing run, Bowyer decided to look back and see what had been hit.
It was a decision that would change his life forever.
“I pulled up and rolled over to see what was happening,” Bowyer told the Reporter-News. “Took a .30 caliber hit in the roll that came in from the left and went across my chest before hitting me in the (right) arm. I didn’t stick around to find out what was happening after that. You seem to get in a hurry to get home when you get hurt.”
But Bowyer was more than hurt. His right arm was so badly mangled from the shrapnel that tore through his body that his arm was barely attached to his shoulder. He flew approximately 340 miles north to his base in England going in and out of consciousness as his body went into shock from blood loss.
He left the 4th Fighter Group not long after his final flight and spent the next 30 months in hospitals trying to save his arm. He wouldn’t let doctors take the appendage, so he was left with a right arm that was three inches shorter than the left for the rest of his life. But at least he came home with both arms still attached to his body.
He rose to the rank of captain while recovering from his injuries, and earned the Air Medal, Purple Heart, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.
Returning to Abilene, he later became heavily involved in the community, owning and managing West Texas Ranch Supply and Feed Co., and also running Abilene Lumber. He worked with ranchers, farmers, and those in rodeos all over the state in those businesses, and he also assisted local veterans in receiving their Veterans’ Administration home loans through a distribution system that he oversaw.
And he did it all with one arm three inches shorter than the other, never letting that so-called disability slow him down.
“He suffered from PTSD, although no one knew what it was called back then,” Broyles said. “There were rumors that Hitler was putting civilians in those munitions trains that the pilots were having to destroy, so he struggled later in life not knowing if he had killed citizens while carrying out his orders.
“But my ‘Pappy Mac’ was a living, breathing John Wayne,” she said. “He didn’t want special treatment, and he refused to take disability for his arm. He and my other grandfather and my sister (who served her country in the National Guard during Operation Iraqi Freedom) are the reason I’m so patriotic and so pro-military. To hear about all of the things he did and all that he accomplished before the war and after is overwhelming. It will be such an honor to see his name on that wall, and that it’s here at Dyess where he spent so much time after he returned home makes it even more special.”