An obsolete WW II bomber, Marauder still powerful enough to revive passion Much-criticized planes have loyal following

March 28, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Bob McKean has heard the complaints against the B-26 Marauder: that it was hard to handle, that its early design caused almost as many crashes as German fighters, that the war was really won by larger bombers.

But he doesn't buy it. As U.S. Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Bob "Mac" McKean he flew Marauders on 52 missions deep into Italy, France and Germany, taking out bridges, barracks and softening up opposition for advancing Allied troops.

"It was the best plane in the world," said McKean, now a 72-year-old retired International Business Machine Corp. executive living in Timonium.

As a gunner, he flew on his knees, operating a pair of 50-caliber machine guns jutting out the underside of the plane's midsection. He earned five battle stars, riding with the six-man crew as it dodged ground fire and fought off attackers.

"It had the best war record of any bomber and it was made here in Baltimore and we still have a lot of people who worked on them living here," McKean said.

The B-26 is the most famous of the planes built at what was once a hotbed of aviation development: the Glenn L. Martin factories near Middle River in Baltimore County, where wartime employment topped 50,000.

Designed just before U.S. entry into World War II, the Marauder was initially employed by the British, whose air force gave their planes names rather than the numbers then used by their American counterparts. Martin had designated the B-26 the "Martian," but the Brits preferred "Martin Marauder" and the name stuck.

It was designed with powerful engines and small wings, to make it fast. That combination, however, required landing and takeoffs at a screaming 120 mph, 30 mph faster than comparable planes.

"It was a plane that attracted passionate opinions. There were some people who found it difficult to fly. Other people found it to be a plane that was sturdy in combat," said John R. Breihan, a history professor at Loyola College and co-author of "Martin Aircraft 1909-1960."

Its instability led to well-publicized crashes. Trainees at the McDill Field air base in Tampa, Fla., joked about "one a day in Tampa Bay." Later refinements improved both the handling and safety record, but not before then-Sen. Harry S. Truman witnessed a training crash and derided the plane through the special committee on national defense.

A 1943 report by the committee faulted the Marauder as "unsafe when operated by any pilots except those specially trained for its operation. . . ." The Army phased out production and, after the war, the plane was declared obsolete and its B-26 designation given to another plane.

Between 1940 and 1945, 5,266 Marauders were built at Baltimore and at another Martin plant in Omaha, Neb. Most were quickly scrapped after the war and the few that remain can fetch $1 million from collectors.

Historians still debate the contribution of medium bombers such as the B-26.

There is little such argument among ex-crew members, who credit the planes with their safe return and have formed groups of enthusiasts. "We call ourselves Marauder men. We're that proud," McKean said.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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