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Ordinary guy received extraordinary medal

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 5:02 p.m.

Gary McCullough of Jeannette remembers his uncle as an ordinary guy, a devoted family man who loved aviation. History remembers Bill Shomo as an ace pilot and a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who shot down seven Japanese planes during World War II.

Shomo grew up on Alwine Avenue in Jeannette. He played the saxophone in the high school band and graduated from Jeannette High School in 1936. In 1940, he married Helen McCullough, another Jeannette resident and Gary McCullough's aunt.

'He was just a skinny kid,' McCullough said. 'His father, George, use to run the Acme Supermarket on Clay Avenue.'

When the war broke out, Shomo was assigned to the Air Force's 82nd Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. After spending 16 months photographing and shooting up ground targets to support Gen. Douglas MacArthur's drive to the Philippines, Shomo was given a new airplane - a P-51, also known as a Mustang. By late 1944, he was made commander of the squadron and ordered to move it to Mindoro, an island off the southwest coast of Luzon, Philippines.

After only five flights in his Mustang, Shomo led his first P-51 reconnaissance mission over northern Luzon. When Shomo and his pilots approached the Japanese airfield at Tuguegarao, Shomo spotted a Val dive bomber. He trained his six, .50-caliber guns on the bomber and quickly brought it down. The date was Jan. 9, 1945.

'My uncle's plane was called 'The Flying Undertaker,'' said McCullough. 'That's because he worked for Earl Miller, an undertaker on Second Street in Jeannette before the war.'

The plane's nickname soon proved prophetic for other Japanese pilots on Luzon.

On Jan. 4, 1945, Japanese kamikaze pilots blazed their way throughout Luzon, destroying American and Australian escort carriers, heavy cruisers and destroyers. By Jan. 7, two American battleships, the New Mexico and the California, were badly damaged by kamikaze attacks. The fight for control over Luzon was looking grim.

The 26-year-old Shomo, now a major, and his wingman, Lt. Paul Lipscomb, headed north to photograph and strafe Japanese airfields at Tuguegarao, Aparri and Laoag at the northern end of Luzon on Jan. 11. At 2,500 feet, they spotted Japanese planes flying south. Shomo pulled up through the broken clouds and rolled out behind a Betty bomber that was being escorted by a Japanese fighter squadron of 11 Tonys and one Tojo.

The element of surprise gave Shomo the edge he needed.

Shomo quickly shot down four of the Tonys and then flew under the belly of the bomber and let loose with a burst from his guns. The Betty, now in flames, soon exploded in the skies over Luzon.

The Tojo sought revenge for the downing of its five comrades. The pilot locked onto the tail of The Flying Undertaker, a steady stream of bullets erupting from its guns. When the Tony's engine stalled, the pilot dove away from Shomo's aircraft.

During his second diving pass, Shomo knocked out two more Tonys with a barrage from his guns. The dogfight was brief - less than six minutes - and Shomo officially became an ace pilot. Lipscomb, his wingman, shot down three of the Japanese planes. In all, the two men took out 10 of the 13 enemy aircraft that day.

'Exactly one year earlier, on Jan. 11, 1944, Maj. James Howard of the 354th Fighter Group, shot down six German planes over Germany,' said McCullough. 'My uncle always said he was just doing what he needed to do. After ... he shot down the planes, he and his crew chief bought a case of beer and got drunk.'

On April 1, 1945, Shomo was awarded the Medal of Honor by Gen. MacArthur for 'leading an attack against heavy odds ... .'

Shomo remained in the Air Force for 28 years.

'After the war, he got out of the military for about six to eight months,' McCullough said. 'Then SAC Cmdr. Curtis LeMay asked him to come back.'

LeMay headed the Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957.

'LeMay wanted my uncle back because he knew Korea was happening,' McCullough added.

McCullough also has an avid interest in aviation. He received his private pilot's license in 1969 and is now retired from Delta Airlines.

'I had my first airplane ride when I was 6 years old out in Harrison City,' said McCullough. 'There was a grass airstrip out behind Duncan's Hardware. Part of the old hangar is still there.'

The young McCullough was immediately hooked on flying and would talk to his Uncle Bill about his experiences in the cockpit.

'One Easter, we were down at my uncle's for dinner. I had just started flying. He told me, 'You either fly the airplane or the airplane flies you.' I thought about that the whole way home. The next time I flew, I realized I was flying the plane,' said McCullough, who served as a chaplain's assistant from 1966-1972 for the 911th Reserve Unit stationed at Pittsburgh International Airport.

The family room in McCullough's Jeannette home is filled with models of airplanes, photographs of his two daughters and his wife, and photos of his famous uncle. Among the treasures are two books, 'Five Down and Glory' and 'Top Guns.' Both books feature chapters on Shomo.

'The first airplane he flew in the war, a P-39, was recovered from the jungles of New Guinea and is now in the Naval and Serviceman's Museum in Buffalo,' McCullough said. 'The plane was made by Bell Aviation in Buffalo and was one of only 9,500.'

McCullough remembers a story Shomo told him about another ace pilot, Gregory 'Pappy' Boyington, the famed leader of the Black Sheep Squadron during the war. Credited with shooting down 22 enemy planes, Boyington's own aircraft was shot down in a large-scale dogfight over Rabaul Caldera, Papua New Guinea, in early 1944. He spent 1 &*#189; years as a Japanese prisoner of war.

'Every year, a dinner was held for all the Medal of Honor winners. It was 1947 or '48 and my uncle went up to Boyington's hotel room. Boyington was trying to toss someone out the window,' McCullough said.

He also recalled how his uncle never liked being called a hero.

'He said he did what he had to do.'

Shortly before his death on June 25, 1990, Shomo told former television newsman Adam Lynch what it meant to be a pilot in World War II. The videotape of that interview is one of McCullough's most prized remembrances of his uncle.

'You get used to the fact that you're living with death,' Shomo said. 'But there's no greater gift anyone can give than to lay down their life for their country.'

At his funeral services, the modest veteran was eulogized with a 21-gun salute and an Air Force flyover in the missing man formation. Shomo was one of only 59 airmen in the history of the Army Air Corps to be awarded the Medal of Honor and was one of only two Medal of Honor recipients from Westmoreland County.

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