James McLaughry: Bomber pilot who played a key figure in the Moral Re-Armament movement

His close calls in combat convinced him that there was a God who could work miracles

Michael Henderson
Tuesday 29 September 2015 20:00 BST
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McLaughry: he flew 21 missions, he said. 'God gave me my 22nd'
McLaughry: he flew 21 missions, he said. 'God gave me my 22nd'

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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The American bomber pilot James McLaughry flew 21 Second World War combat missions from an 8th Air Force base in East Anglia. He found his 22nd mission, he said, in a postwar commitment to the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) movement. The aim of MRA, in the words of its founder, Dr Frank Buchman, was to build a “hate-free, fear-free, greed-free world” in tackling the root causes of war and conflict.

Jim McLaughry was born and grew up in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. When the US entered the war in 1941 he was a student working part-time in his father's machine-tool factory. In October 1942, still a teenager, he enlisted in the US Army Air Corps. Trained as a B-24 bomber pilot, he was assigned with his crew in summer 1944 to Europe in the 8th Air Force, flying with the 392nd Heavy Bombardment Air Force Group.

In 14 of his 21 bombing missions he returned with wounded aboard, or flying on fewer than four engines, or crippled with mechanical difficulty due to enemy action. “I had believed in God all my life,” he wrote in his memoir, “but I never really had a deep personal experience of his power and grace.” His close calls in combat – including a near mid-air collision, an open-sea ditching and a home base landing with engines that had a minute and a half of flying time left, convinced him that there was a God who could work miracles.

McLaughry had been told when he was younger that God could become a guiding and controlling force in his life. On 7 August 1944, flying in combat, McLaughry and his crew faced almost certain death. “I asked God for his direction and guidance,” he recalled. “God spoke clearly to me over the roar of the engines, telling me what to do. He took away my fear. I was convinced the hand of God protected me.” They arrived back safely, and not long after he decided to commit his life completely to God's will: “I had put my life under a new authority.”

From then on he set time aside daily to seek God's will in silent reflection. He visited the international MRA team in London, where he got to know British airmen such as Flight Lieutenant David Howell and his brother Wing Commander Edward Howell as well as the Australian pilots, Gordon Wise and Jim Coulter. Howell would hitchhike to McLaughry's airbase to support him as other members of the crew became interested in the changes in his life. Coulter recalls from in Melbourne: “We met on leaves and spoke of what we might do if we survived — then were given the chance to do it.”

In early 1945 McLaughry was assigned as personal pilot and aide to Major General Frederick L Anderson, Deputy Commander of the United States Strategic Air Force. He flew Anderson to military conferences in liberated areas of Europe and to air fields behind the front line in France and Belgium. Then between 17 and 22 April he flew Anderson into the heart of bombed-out Germany to assess the effect of Allied strategic bombing. The assessment included a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp and the underground factories for the manufacture of flying bombs. Those five days were to sear McLaughry's soul. He wrote of “the ghastly picture of man's savage hatred unleashed on fellow men: we need the hand of the Almighty even more so that such agony would never happen again to mankind.”

Mclaughry was concerned that when he reached 80 he might look back on his life, “only to find that I had missed the target, that my energies had been wasted and my true destiny lost for ever… Perhaps that would be the story of my generation in the world?” He was also concerned that his country might gain a victory of arms but would return to a comfortable way of life unchanged by the unimaginable world catastrophe. “Would my children be forced to fight in an even more terrible war than I had, simply because as a nation we did not dare to change?”

In his memoir he describes how such considerations helped him give up a his dreams of political office and choose to commit himself to what he sensed God was telling him to do — to give his full time and energy to healing a war-torn world, to bring about reconciliation between former enemies and restore trust. “This was my 22nd mission.”

Demobbed in 1945, for the next 20 years he worked without pay for MRA, by then known as Initiatives of Change, drawing Germany and Japan back into the family of nations and helping to lay the foundations of trust and friendship between France and Germany. He was involved in several musical stage productions which carried a message of reconciliation and healing. From 1965 to 1968 he joined an MRA stage spin-off, Up With People, and became aviation director for its world-wide operations.

In 1967 he married the musician Nancy Hawthorne, who had also been involved in both MRA and Up With People. In 1969 he began a new career as a corporate pilot, flying jet and turbo-prop aircraft for a large corporation until 1984.

In 2014 the American writer David Allen helped McLaughry complete his memoir Pathway through the Sky, which is due to be published next year. Allen writes: “Jim was one of my best friends of a life-time. We knew him as a gifted actor and singer, pilot, helper and friend, serving at our side unselfishly through the years. I mourn his loss but will follow behind him on the 'pathway through the sky' he discovered in combat and followed through life and to the end.

“Jim will be forever named among hundreds and thousands of World War II veterans who risked their lives and courageously fought in the skies, on the seas and on the beaches of Europe to deliver a continent from tyranny.”

James Alexander McLaughry, pilot and campaigner: born New Wilmington, Pennsylvania 14 February 1924; married 1967 Nancy Hawthorne (one daughter); died Arden Hills, Minnesota 30 June 2015.

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