Sergeant Mike McKinney, a veteran of the fabled "Big Red One," may well have been the first American in the assault wave to set foot on Omaha Beach. He was awarded the Silver Star for rallying his men to take out a pillbox. His son Tom has been instrumental in getting him to tell his story.
©1999, 2009 Aaron Elson
Rio Rancho, N.M., Feb. 5, 1999
Aaron Elson: Youíre Vincent Michael McKinney?
Mike McKinney: They call me Mike.
Aaron Elson: And you come from Brooklyn?
Mike McKinney: Born and bred.
Aaron Elson: Which part?
Mike McKinney: Park Slope. Seventeenth Street and Ninth Avenue.
Aaron Elson: My stepdaughter just moved to Church Avenue.
Mike McKinney: Church Avenueís down below us.
Aaron Elson: Off of Ocean Parkway.
Mike McKinney: I know just the corner.
Aaron Elson: In Kensington.
Mike McKinney: I worked in plainclothes in Brooklyn when I was in the Police Deparment.
Aaron Elson: Did you walk a beat?
Mike McKinney: For years I did. I was first assigned to East Harlem when I joined the Police Department. I stayed up there for many years, then went to Brooklyn plainclothes, and came back to Harlem. East Harlem.
Aaron Elson: That was after the war?
Mike McKinney: After I got out of the Army.
Aaron Elson: What did you do before the war?
Mike McKinney: I worked in a radio factory in Brooklyn. Air King Radio. They sold to Sears. It was tough to get jobs. I had a steady job; I was making about ten bucks a week. Which was a good salary in 1939 or í40. I came out of the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps], I had been there for a year out in Idaho. Then I came back home.
Aaron Elson: What led you to go into the CCC?
Mike McKinney: I had heard about the CCC, and it sounded good being out in the fresh air. I wasnít doing anything. I figured Iíd go in and get thirty bucks a month. We got eight and the rest went home as an allotment. My mother could use the money with ten kids at home, and no money coming in.
Aaron Elson: How old were you when your father died?
Mike McKinney: I was 13. I had just gotten into high school.
Aaron Elson: Where did you go to high school?
Mike McKinney: The High School of Manual Training. I was in the annex on Tenth Avenue. I was there for a year, then went to the main school on Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue.
Aaron Elson: What led you to go into the Army?
Mike McKinney: I met a guy in the CCC. He came from the Bronx, but he called himself Tex. Tex Richardson. After the war we stayed close. He went into the Army, and then I met him. He was strutting around in his uniform and telling me how good it was in the Army, so I figured what the heck. And he was stationed at Fort Jay, which is right out in the harbor on Governorís Island. So in the regular Army Ė thatís the peacetime Army Ė you just worked in the morning, did some calisthenics, a little close order drill, and a little training, and you had the rest of the day off. After lunch you went to the city or you could go home, whatever you wanted to do, and get back the next morning for Reveille. It sounded good, so off I went. I didnít know anything about a war. If Iíd known a war was coming, Iíd probably have delayed going in.
Aaron Elson: What year was that?
Mike McKinney: 1940.
Aaron Elson: So you signed up for what, two years?
Mike McKinney: It was a three-year stint.
Aaron Elson: Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
Mike McKinney: I was walking out the gate of Fort Devens up in Massachusetts with a 30-day pass in my pocket. "Everybody back to the barracks! Everybody back to the barracks! The Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor."
"Where the heck is Pearl Harbor?" We found out later. But I ended up with a three-day pass, so it wasnít a total loss.
Aaron Elson: Were you a sergeant by then?
Mike McKinney: No. I was just a private. In the regular Army it took you years to get any kind of rank. In fact, we were down in Florida and I was still a private and there were guys Ė by that time they had the one-year enlistments; the guys were told they could sign up for a year and then they could be discharged and that would be their duty. But before the year was up, they told them all they were going to hold them for the duration of the war, so they adopted an acronym, OHIO Ė Over the Hill in October. But they didnít.
Then they started forming units all over the country, different companies and regiments and tank battalions and engineers, and they had to put somebody in charge, so they were making sergeants and corporals all over the place. Guys with three months in the Army were sergeants, and here I was with almost two years, Iím still a private. Iíd come home and hear, "Whatís the matter with you? Johnny up the street just went in two months ago and heís a sergeant already." So we threatened to leave the company and go into the MPs, and they made me a Pfc.
Aaron Elson: What was the pay for a Pfc then?
Mike McKinney: I took a pay cut to go in the Army. I made $30 a month in the CCC and I got $21 a month in the Army. A Pfc got a few dollars more than a private, maybe six or seven.
Aaron Elson: At what point did you wind up in the First Infantry Division.
Mike McKinney: As soon as I enlisted. I went into the 16th Regiment. There was only one regiment stationed on Governorís Island, the 16th Infantry. The 18th Infantry was in Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. The 26th was up in New Hampshire or Rhode Island. But after war was declared, they assembled the whole division at Fort Devens in Massachusetts.
Aaron Elson: So you were one of the originals who went overseas with them, and you were in all of their campaigns?
Mike McKinney: Yes, all of them. The First Division went to North Africa. We went to Scotland, England, then North Africa in November of í42. We went overseas in August of í42. In November we went to North Africa. We invaded Oran. A little town called Arzew, it was right around the corner from Oran. But there was not much; it was a three-day, not a battle but it took three days to get into Oran, because it was all set up that they were going to surrender. The French had made a deal with, who the heck was that guy? Some general went ashore in a submarine and they had a conference with the French brass in Algiers or Oran, and they decided they would put on a show for three days and then surrender, so thatís all it was. We had a little battle, one guy got killed, but it was really nothing, just a show.
Aaron Elson: After Oran, where did you go?
Mike McKinney: We stayed in North Africa and went up below Algiers. In February of í43 we moved up, in the 40 and 8s they call them, by railroad. Eight horses and 40 men, they were boxcars. In a place called the Ouseltia Valley, and we just went into a static position. We were on one side of the valley and maybe a mile and a half away were the Italians, and we were on the hills on the west side of the valley. It was called the Ouseltia Valley. There wasnít much doing right away. I took out a patrol one time; I guess the division or somebody wanted to know exactly where the troops were over there, so they sent me out with an extended combat patrol. We went out in the middle of the night, I guess three or four oíclock, and I guess we stumbled or the Italians heard us, and they threw up flares and started shooting. We shot back and threw hand grenades. All we were supposed to do was find out where they were. We werenít supposed to stay there and fight with them, so once we did that we took off and came back. And I gave the coordinates Ė I used a compass to go out, and I followed the compass back so when I got back I knew just exactly where they were. So they shelled them. Oh, one guy got lost; he stayed up there. I guess he didnít get the word to move out. I remember his name. Dexter. Tony Dexter? He got back finally, but he was there when the shelling was going on, and he said, "Boy, that stuff came in all over the place. You were right on target." So that felt good. We lost one guy; he was taken prisoner. I was the squad leader, he was my corporal. He never came back, so we figured he was a prisoner of war.
Aaron Elson: Tom told me you captured an Italian prisoner who said he was from Brooklyn.
Mike McKinney: We didnít capture him, he gave himself up. This was in the same spot. We see this guy waving a stick with a white flag on it and he says, "Donít shoot! Donít shoot! Iím from Brooklyn!" It seemed he had gone over there on a visit before the war started and he got stuck, and they pulled him into the army. And the first chance he saw, he knew Americans were over there. So I go over, "Hey, goombah, come on over." Heís from Brooklyn, heís a friend. He talked just like a Brooklynese. "Donít shoot, Iím from Brooklyn."
Aaron Elson: When did you get up into the Casserine Pass?
Mike McKinney: Casserine was after that. We didnít occupy Casserine. The 36th Division, the Texas outfit, they were in there. We heard the fighting going on. We were in an area I guess a mile or two behind the lines, and we could hear the shooting, the bombing and all that. We knew something was going on. All of a sudden we get a call during the night, weíre going to counterattack. I donít know if it was battalion strength or regiment strength, but in the middle of the night we pulled out where we were in reserve and we moved up, and do you know what a waddy is? Itís a deep water course. And we stayed in there. We assemble there until we get the word to move out. They delivered mail, too. Here we were getting ready to go into action, and they bring up mail. Letters and packages. And my sister had sent me a two pound box or three pound box of chocolates. Weíre waiting to move out and here Iíve got a box of chocolates; what am I gonna do with a box of chocolates? Iíve got no place to put it even. So we gorged ourselves on chocolate.
Then we took off on the first shine of daylight and started moving toward the mountains, maybe a mile or a half a mile away. But it ended up the Germans had pulled out, so we just took up positions. I was told to take a reinforced squad up to the top of this mountain. I remember climbing up there. There was a valley through the mountains. Thatís where the Germans were coming from and the British were pushing them back our way toward Algiers, and then they were going to go north to cross over into Italy or the continent. Thatís what I found out later. But when we got to the Casserine Pass the fighting was just about finished. All we did was occupy the mountains and make sure they didnít come through. As it ended up, there were thousands of the Africa Korps, I can still see them, with their khaki outfits on, surrendering. We didnít take them prisoners. They surrendered with their officers, and they marched themselves back towards the rear echelon, to a prisoner of war camp I guess. But they were big guys. They were blonds and they looked like good fighters. Iím glad we didnít do too much against them.
Aaron Elson: Did you ever run into the German tanks?
Mike McKinney: Yes. We were down in El Gitar, which is right on the edge of the Sahara Desert; this was below the Ouseltia Valley. We were moved into position down there. We were in an oasis, palm trees, there were a couple of Arabs there, and they were tending fruit and vegetables, right in the war. It was a huge place, too. We were positioned on a little row of hills. It must have been a holding position. Then all of a sudden one morning we look up, and you could see thousands of men just get up and start walking. All spread out, thousands of them. And tanks. We had artillery down in front of the hills; instead of behind them, the artillery was in the front. I didnít know what they were doing there; usually theyíre in back of the infantry and just lobbing shells out, but these guys were down there for direct fire to fire on the tanks. That was tactically correct I guess.
So they started walking, a mile or so away, and they started walking this way and the tanks were coming, spread out as far as you could see. It was a scary thing. And I donít know what we had; I know my company was there, thatís the extent of what I could see. I didnít know where anybody else was. And there were a couple of German planes flying over; in fact one guy came down in back of us, we were up on this hill pretty high, and we hear the plane, and turn around and see him; I could see the pilot in the plane. He wasnít shooting at us; I guess he was looking to see what was there, to let the infantry and the tanks know. But all of a sudden they just stopped and turned around and went back. They must have seen more than what I could see and figured it wasnít a good way to go. I got in a couple of shots at the airplane, he came back again for another run and we could hear him coming so I just swung around and ba-ba-ba-ba. But we were lucky, I guess.
Aaron Elson: That must have been an awesome sight.
Mike McKinney: It was. I can still see it. A clear, sunny morning. The sun was coming up from the East to backlight it, all these little tiny things. We knew it was infantry.
Aaron Elson: Where did you get wounded first?
Mike McKinney: Easter Sunday, in Africa. We were on top of a hill; we had just gotten there. All of a sudden a flare went up, a parachute flare I guess it was. It turned out later it was our own artillery, but they started shelling us with airbursts. The shell explodes in the air and it shoots the shrapnel down. Of course we were all head-first in the dirt, and I felt a little thing hit me in the back. Once they got the artillery stopped, they started collecting the wounded and taking them back to the aid stations. I hitched a ride on a jeep back to the battalion aid station. I stayed there a couple of days. They told me all I had was a scratch, but I looked at my underwear, my khaki shirt, my jacket and my ammunition belt, and they all had holes right through. If it was a scratch it would have just scraped the belt with the ammunition, but there was a hole right through them, so I think Iíve still got pieces of shrapnel in my back. They may be tiny, it never affected me, but itís still in there. That was Easter Sunday, 1943. Our own artillery. They make mistakes, too. I guess the artillery observer saw somebody, didnít know where anybody was, or made a mistake, whatever. I forgave him a long time ago.
Aaron Elson: Was anyone killed in that?
Mike McKinney: I donít know. I wouldnít know. There were quite a few wounded.
Aaron Elson: So you came backÖ
Mike McKinney: I came back to my outfit after a couple of days. And we continued; after that Easter Sunday, we started going up toward the north, because the Germans were coming west and going north, so we went from the south up north, to contain them so they couldnít come through and go back to Oran or whatever. Or stay in Africa; they had to get out. The British were pushing pretty hard, and we were building up, so we had quite a force there, too. We just followed them up to the north, up around Bizerte. Then they took off, wherever they went. Some of them went to Sicily I guess, and the rest probably went to Italy. I think the Italians left the war shortly after that, and the Germans did all the fighting from the boot of Italy all the way up.
Aaron Elson: Did you get take part in the invasion of Sicily?
Mike McKinney: Yeah. We were static for a while after Bizerte. I missed one good fight on Hill 609 they called it, when I was in the hospital. The company lost a lot of guys; I understand it was pretty bloody. So I missed that one. But after that, it was quite all right; when I came back to the company there wasnít much doing. We moved up closer to the Mediterranean, outside Bizerte. I remember Mount Etna sitting over there. I remember the smoke coming out of Mount Etna. So we sat there and watched Mount Etna, and got cleaned. And it was just in a short time, I couldnít say how long Ė a week, two weeks, a month, three weeks or whatever Ė but we headed to Sicily. We were marked D-Day plus one, and we went over in a bigger ship than the assault crafts. In Africa we landed with these Higgins boats, I donít know if you know anything about the Higgins boat.
Aaron Elson: They were small?
Mike McKinney: They were small, made out of wood. It was the first landing craft they made. Didnít have ramps to go down; you had to get on the gunwales and hop off. Jump off. The boat pulled in and landed on the beach. But for Sicily, the boat was a little bigger. I forget what they called them.
Aaron Elson: LCVPs?
Mike McKinney: Vehicle personnel? No vehicles, you couldnít get vehicles on these. But we could get the whole company on it; it was a bigger ship. And I remember we pulled in and landed; some guy had to hop off Ė there was no way to get off without diving into the water and swimming ashore, so a couple of guys had to go off with ropes and they had to tie it onto the front of this landing craft and then stay there and the first couple of guys anchored the rope, then we all went in hand over hand on the ropes.
Aaron Elson: Was that under fire?
Mike McKinney: No, there was no fire. It was kind of quiet.
Aaron Elson: What do you think about prior to a landing?
Mike McKinney: Another day, another town. Itís your job. Youíre young. Youíre invincible. Other guys are gonna get killed but not me. If the bulletís got your name Ö youíre a fatalist. If a bulletís got my name on it Iím gonna get it; thereís nothing I can do about it. Donít worry about it. You develop that kind of attitude. Youth plus fatalism plus faith or trust in a higher power, whatever it is. That kept me in good stead for a long time. I knew my mother was praying hard for me. I knew my fiancee was praying hard. So I figured I was going to be taken care of. A couple of near misses convinced me that I was lucky, so that helped too. Iím Irish.
Aaron Elson: Where were the near misses?
Mike McKinney: I had a near miss in Sicily. This was at night. We had moved up on a hill, and we were starting to dig in when daylight came. We started to get shelled and guys were just laying flat. A couple of guys, what-was-his-name was the platoon sergeant, and Gene Mobley was a squad leader, and they were in the same foxhole. It was a shallow foxhole at the time we started to get shelled, so they both jumped into the same foxhole, and a shell came in, and blew off both of their both legs. I was nearby and theyíre crying and hollering. I crawled over to see what their problem was, and I could see that one guy, one leg was still on, the other three were gone. So I started hollering downhill, "Stretcher bearers!" Usually you had them with the company. I passed the word, "Stretcher bearers needed." But nothing showed up in a couple of minutes, so I ran back down and around the hill, and I hopped into a slit trench that the Germans had left, and I started telling one guy down there, "Get a stretcher!" We were near the couple of guys that had the legs blown off. I hear a shell coming in and I duck. Then I went back up to where they were, and the shell had hit right beside their hips. If I was still there, talking to them or trying to take care of them, stanch their blood or something, it would have hit me right in the head. That was a near miss. There were a couple of other near misses where you could hear the bullets going past your head, psst, psst, psst, psst. Thatís the sound it makes when theyíre shooting at you. We were going up a hill one time with a couple of tanks, and we were walking along with a tank and I could hear these bullets, psst, psst, psst, psst. Going fast. Those were near misses.
Aaron Elson: When that shell came in, did it kill the two men?
Mike McKinney: Yes. There was hard, packed dirt, so the shell didnít bore a hole. It just hit the hard dirt and all the rocks and stuff and it went sideways. The concussion I think is what killed them.
Aaron Elson: After Sicily, where did you go?
Mike McKinney: We came back to England.
Aaron Elson: Is there anything else in Sicily that happened?
Mike McKinney: Like I said, we ended up watching Mount Etna smoke a little bit. Then they told us we were going back to England. I donít know whether somebody wisecracked or something, somebody said Eisenhower needs a good outfit to lead the invasion into Normandy so he tagged the Big Red One. We felt pretty cocky and pretty good about that.
We had experience. We had been in combat, and we did have a good history. The First Infantry Division goes way, way back. I think it was the oldest outfit in the Army. So we felt pretty cocky about that, and we went back to England. We went to a place called Weymouth. It was out in the boonies all by itself. Weymouth was a coastal town. And we went into quonset huts, the whole company, and started getting ready for D-Day. We were told what our assignments were going to be in Normandy. They told us we were going to go up against pillboxes. We broke the platoon down into sections. We didnít have platoons anymore; we had sections. We ended up with four sections and headquarters section. So each section had riflemen; a couple of guys who were gonna handle bangalore torpedoes; a few guys who were gonna have satchel charges. Bangalore torpedoes were long pipes with dynamite in them, you would slide them underneath the barbed wire. Youíd take another one and screw it in Ė it was threaded Ė and slide it down under the wire, push it up; take a third one and slide that under, as far as you need it. You put a prime in the last one, pull the trigger, and you blow the barbed wire up, to make a path for the guys with the flamethrower and the satchel charge to get through.
Aaron Elson: What about the mines in between?
Mike McKinney: There were no mines on the beach, not going up to the pillbox. There were mines off to the side. I took a patrol out late that night and walked through the whole thing before I knew it was there. Because the sign was on the other side when we got out. Once we got out, I saw the sign, and I said to the guys, "We just walked through a minefield."