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Frowned on strip ping-pong

Joe Holley

Scanning some of the British papers this morning, I noticed several interesting obituaries for World War II veterans, and I remembered writing a story a few years ago about how we're losing more than a thousand WWII vets a day. The numbers are mounting, of course.

Their deaths are also a reminder that they have stories worth remembering. Here, for example, are three from today's London Telegraph:

Wing Commander Ken Mackenzie, 92 when he died earlier this month, was chasing a German Messerschmitt that had just bombed London. Although Mackenzie had run out of ammunition after shooting down two enemy planes, he was determined not to let the Messerschmitt escape as it turned for France. He rammed it with his starboard wing, which sent the German plane spiraling into the sea.

He once escaped from a German POW camp by feigning madness and developing a severe stammer for the purpose. For the rest of his Royal Air Force career, he was known as Mad Mac.

"Mackenzie, who never lost the stammer he cultivated as a POW, was an irascible character and always led from the front," the Telegraph reported. "It was his habit to fly every morning before the routine meteorological briefing for all the other pilots."

Lt. Commander Max Shean, 90, was an X-craft diver on a secret, 51-foot, four-man submarine. He had volunteered for hazardous duty without knowing what hazardous duty meant. He soon found out that as an X-craft diver, he had to learn how to get in and out of his mini-sub underwater through a small wet-and-dry chamber, shutting himself off from the rest of the crew before flooding the compartment and opening an external hatch. He won 68 awards for bravery while diving in enemy harbors both in Europe and the Pacific.

Here's my favorite: Major Philip James, 84, served with the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners and then in Waziristan, "where he learned to build bridges and took part in annual tentpegging competitions against Pathan tribesmen."

After the war he became headmaster of a traditional British prep school, where "he was ready for any crisis, whether it meant opening a locked tuck box or using his dowsing skills to clear blockages in drains."

He was known for allowing misbehaving students the opportunity to redeem themselves before meting out punishment. "On one occasion," the Telegraph reported, "he impressed parents he was showing round the school by calmly telling two almost-naked boys, whom they encountered playing a game of strip table tennis, to get dressed again. The visitors immediately decided it was the place for their son."

He was familiar with youthful high jinks, having indulged in a few himself. "On one occasion he bombarded another regiment's officers' mess with flaming polo balls, which earned him a dressing-down."

"The Major," as he was always known, also taught his boys the correct way to eat peas with a fork.

By Joe Holley  |  June 21, 2009; 12:04 PM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley , Military  
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