WWII fighter pilot crawled for life

Tuesday, February 12th 2008, 5:58 pm
By: News 9

By Alex Cameron, NEWS 9

A World War II fighter pilot was stranded and alone after his plane crashed and he had stepped on a land mine. With no use of his legs, he crawled for ten days.

Tom Maloney could have gone home after he shot down his fifth enemy plane in May 1944, but he chose to keep flying.

He could have gone home after completing his 50th mission that summer, but he thought he could do more for his country by staying on. On August 19, 1944, Tom Maloney flew his 64th and final mission.

Flying out of Corsica in his P-38 Lightning, 21-year-old Lt. Tom Maloney and his 27th Fighter Squadron had just completed a dive-bombing mission in southern France.

Looking for additional targets of opportunity, they found one, a German train carrying tanks, trucks and other equipment.

"I strafed about three of those trucks on the back of flatcar that blew up as I was strafing them and of course you're so close and going so fast, you have to fly through the debris," Maloney said.

That debris, it turns out, hit Maloney's engines and he was forced to put his plane down in the Mediterranean, ten miles off the coast.

Now 84, Maloney still remembers how he escaped his sinking P-38 in a small dinghy, and how close he was to being picked up by the rescue boat that came looking for him.

"I figured about 200 yards, but they just couldn't see me," Maloney said.

Maloney's fate now rested with the wind and the tide. In the middle of the black, moonless night, the tide deposited him on a desolate beach.

Not sure where he was, and worried he might be spotted by Germans, Lt. Maloney made the fateful decision to head to the tree line to hide.

"I hadn't gotten very far when I heard, ‘click', just like someone cocking a rifle, that's what it sounded like, and immediately a mine went off under me," Maloney said.

Instantly, Maloney's world was changed. The explosion broke both his legs and he was riddled with shrapnel wounds. He had a particularly bad one in his left foot.

"A piece of the mine had gone through the sole of the shoe, through the foot and up above it, and I had to get a hold of that shard and yank it out before I could take that shoe off," Maloney said.

Maloney said the pain was intense, and although he treated his wounds as best he could, he figured he was going to die.

"I made my peace with our maker and passed out," Maloney said.

Daylight brought the realization that, while he wasn't dead, he was alone.  He had no use of his legs, no food, and no water. If his wounds didn't kill him, thirst might, so he started trying to move.

"I could only move a little ways and then I'd go to sleep, eventually I'd wake up, start moving again," Maloney said. "You know how a crawdad moves? Well that's the way I had to move, backwards."

By day three, he'd reached a small pool of water. By day ten, he'd crawled more than a half mile, to a small cabin he'd seen in the distance.

"As I get closer, I could see a guy walking up there and that one guy looked up and saw me," Maloney said. "He went and got his buddies and they all started down toward me. They could see how bad shape I was in and they picked up and took care of me. I was almost out, but not quite."

His harrowing ordeal was over but Maloney said, the truth is, his real journey had just begun.

"I was in the hospital for over three years, but that's a long time ago," Maloney said.

Doctors wanted to amputate Maloney's legs, but he wouldn't let them. He needed multiple procedures and much rehab, but eventually he did regain use of his legs.

He returned to Cushing, Okla. and became a very productive citizen.

Maloney is almost embarrassed to talk about himself. At the end of our interview, he actually apologized for "wasting our time."

Tom Maloney was credited with destroying 16 German planes. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, and is enshrined in the Oklahoma Air and Space Hall of Fame.

To this day, any plane in the 27th Fighter Squadron that ends with the number 23, Tom Maloney's number, is given the name Maloney's Pony.