Serial #32282183 Quinlan, John P. -Tail Gunner.
It was Bob Morgan – ‘The Chief’ as he was called by the rest of the crew – that nicknamed John Quinlan ‘Our Lucky Horseshoe’.
Quinlan – known by all as ‘JP’ – was born in Nepera Park, Yonkers, New York on June 13th 1919. His father, also called John, worked for the sanitation department and his mom Margaret kept a chicken farm, but his father passed away when he was a kid, things became tough. As the son of a staunch Irish Catholic family he initially attended Catholic Schools, including the Sacred Heart Academy in his high school years.
‘I guess I didn’t conform too well and they didn’t like me. In my third year they more or less let me go. I finished up in public high school’.
Monday 8th December 1941- the day after the day of infamy – and John Quinlan was in the line outside the Recruitment Office in Buffalo, New York. ‘I wanted to join any damn thing. They gave me some tests and decided I fit into the Air Corps. They sent me to St. Louis for basic training. I kept seeing all those crowds of men coming into the Army and I was afraid it would be over, maybe in two or three months, before I could get into it’.
Fate was to play a strange hand over the next few months. Firstly, there was an epidemic of meningitis in the camp at St. Louis. ‘Seems everybody had a cold or flu. Then meningitis.They shipped everybody out of there in a hurry, emptied the camp’.
The fast evacuation landed him at MacDill Field. For training purposes he was assigned to the crew on a plane piloted by Lieutenant Richard G. Hill.
‘Gee, it was almost like getting out of hell and going to heaven. All that sunshine, the beautiful, white, sandy beaches. The good food, after that cold, wet winter at St. Louis and all the sickness’.
PFC Quinlan was promoted to Air Mechanic Second Class on May 16 1942 and then Sergeant on August 1st. Next came a six week tour at gunnery school. Las Vegas, Nevada. Here he rode in the rear compartment of bucking little trainer airplanes, firing a machine gun at sleeve targets being towed by other trainer airplanes.
Back to MacDill, now a qualified gunner, and then the 91st was transferred to Walla Walla, Washington, for final training. Formation flying, more gunnery practice, bombing practice – and maybe a bit of fun on a drill sergeant. ‘He kept telling me my hair wasn’t cut short enough. I got it cut but he still wasn’t satisfied so I shaved it all off. Then I walked up to him, saluted and jerked my cap off. My head was so shiny it almost blinded him’.
On July 15,1942, Lieutenant Hill’s crew was assigned to another routine flight but Hill told Quinlan: ‘I don’t need the gunners this trip, only the co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and radio man. You can take the day off’.
Nobody knew exactly what caused it, or why, but that was the day when the plane piloted by Hill slammed into the side of a mountain and all five men aboard died. The first thing Quinlan knew about it was when he walked across the grounds at the base that evening and ran into a buddy from another plane. The man’s eyes widened in surprise at the sight of Quinlan, as if seeing a ghost. “Gosh, man, you’re supposed to be dead’.
Quinlan was re-assigned to the crew and plane of another young pilot named Robert K. Morgan. JP became his tail gunner.
‘Back in the tail, I was the one who got to see most of that. I watched our friends fall back, hit, and the German fighters waiting to pounce on them like a pack of wolves. They always ganged up on a crippled plane. Those guys in the bombers were our friends, and it made you feel bad because you couldn’t help them.
After that, when they come at you, you want to shoot them. You want to kill them because they killed your friends. You got frustrated because you shot at them and you couldn’t stop them from coming in. I was shooting and doing everything right. I was leading them right and firing the guns just right. But they just kept coming. Kept coming’.
Then there was the time when he thought he had been shot through the head. To fire his guns, he had to lean forward and place his face against the sighting piece. He had stopped firing, leaned back and it happened.
‘A bullet from an enemy airplane went right through my little compartment, in one side and out the other. I felt something wet trickle down my face. When I reached up with my hand, it came away with blood on it. It was crazy but I reached up and touched the other side of my head to see if blood was on that side, too.
The bullet didn’t hit me. A shattered piece of Plexiglas hit me and brought the blood. I wasn’t really hurt. But if I had still been leaning forward in shooting position that bullet would have gone straight through my head.’
Then there was the time he and another Irish American named McDonald declared war on England…
“McDonald was one of those Irish Republican Army sympathizers. He was fun and we buddied around together. One night we were in London and we got drunk. We were out on the street yelling a lot of dirty, four-letter words and we declared war on England and the Queen herself. ‘Come on out and fight,’ we hollered to every Englishman.
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up and it was the biggest Bobby [an English Policeman] I ever saw. No matter how big he was, I would have taken a swing at him if he had talked tough to me. But the guy was so gentle, just like a father, talking to me gentle and sweet. ‘Lads, I believe you have had enough.’ We went along with him just like a couple of little puppies’.
After the tour…
Following the coast-to-coast tour ‘J.P’ was given thirty days leave. He was given a homecoming parade, and also spent time talking to war-workers in and around Yonkers NY. He was then assigned to the 395th BS, 44th BG, a B-29 unit in the Pacific Theater, again as a tailgunner, where he was further credited with shooting down three Japanese aircraft. His B-29, 42-63363 Marietta Misfit, was itself shot down over Japanese occupied Manchuria on December 7th 1944 and Sgt Quinlan had to bail out.
He landed in Japanese-held territory in Manchuria and was captured by the Japanese. Several days later he escaped and made his way into territory held by Chinese guerrillas.
Before the guerrillas could take him to a protected landing strip where an American plane could rescue him, the guerrilla band had to fight several pitched battles with Japanese soldiers. ‘They gave me a rifle and I shot at the Japanese soldiers, too. One sees a lot over there that one doesn’t want to remember. I’ll tell you one thing, those guerrillas were killers. Some of them were only 15 years old but they had little regard for life. I lost a lot of weight. We ate dogs’. said Quinlan.
Sometimes during his trek, he was taken to villages where Americans were expected to make patriotic speeches to the villagers. ‘I just rattled off a bunch of nonsense, threw in a bunch of swear words and the interpreter would tell the crowd something and everyone would cheer’. he said.
One day a B-25 dropped down and landed, took Quinlan on board and flew him back to an American military base. ‘The pilot dropped me off at the base and took off again. The Chinese had given us Chinese guerrilla uniforms to wear and I was just standing there when an American officer walked up and asked me to get him some charcoal. He was surprised when I spoke to him in English and said I was an American airman’.
John was honorably discharged in 1945. When Quinlan came home, a girl called Julie Nicholl was waiting. ‘We went to school together and were going to get married before I went overseas but her father wanted us to wait. Her mother was dead’. We finally had a big church wedding’, he said.
An industrial firm in Yonkers, in a burst of patriotism, gave him a job and promised to train him as an engineer. ‘Later, they quit waving the flag and let me go. They [the Army Air Force] had trained me to shoot guns but nobody needed that anymore’.
He drove a truck a while, then operated a back-hoe. He worked at various construction jobs. John and his wife Julia raised six children and a nephew. John retired in 1980 and was regarded by all who met him as the most colorful member of the Memphis Belle crew. He last visited theMemphis Belle in 1990 and passed away aged 81 in Albany, NY on December 18th 2000. He was buried with full military honors in the Saratoga National Cemetery in Schuylerville, NY.