Most people lie about their age at some point. To see an R-rated movie. To drink a mixed beverage. To appear younger or older.
Joseph McMahan wanted to join a war.
When asked why he enlisted in World War II in 1943, McMahan said, “I had to win the war.”
He also had two brothers already enlisted. “That’s why I went. That’s why I wanted to go,” he said.
McMahan was 15 when he volunteered.
“I doctored my birth certificate a little bit,” he said, recalling his meeting with recruiters. “They questioned me about it. I said it being carried in my pocket was what messed it up a bit. The two guys looked at it and said, ‘Well, OK.’”
McMahan, of Briceville, was born Jan. 8, 1928.
A father of four, McMahan’s charming spirit is kept young by his sense of humor and his love for his dog, Jojo, and cat, Tank. Sitting in The Engine Room in Lake City, where he works as “a coffeemaker, a coffee drinker and a BSer,” McMahan has an impressive military career that spans 23 and a half years. He is a recipient of the Purple Heart for service in the Vietnam War. He also has two sets of wings for his work as a paratrooper and helicopter repairman, along with “several ribbons, you know,” he added modestly, “from being in this and that.”
His service in World War II lasted a year and a half. He was drafted into the Korean War nearly five years later.
“I went up north and got a good job working seven days a week in Dublin, Ohio. They drafted me in the Korean War, and the only thing I could do to get even was to stay, so I stayed.
“I was in Okinawa twice. Vietnam, three times. Korea, two times. Germany was my favorite, when the fighting had stopped.”
He was able to be with his family in Germany as well, for nearly three years.
Adapting to the ocean was another story. When he was still fresh from his enlistment and barely 16, McMahan experienced brutal seasickness.
“I got sick as a dog. I got so sick I thought I was gonna die, and then I got so sick I wanted to die. And they wouldn’t kill me,” he said. “So two or three days of that and I got to where I could get up. Once I got up and moved around, it didn’t bother me anymore.”
A minesweeper soldier aboard the USS Pledge, AM-277, McMahan took full advantage of his sea legs and recalled how he shot at magnetized mines with a 50-caliber machine gun. He counted blasting nearly 30 mines before they could harm the ship. He described the water rushing above him toward what felt hundreds of feet tall.
“I spent a lot of time on that thing,” he said of the pledge, “I was just a kid. I never was scared, really. I didn’t have enough sense to be scared.”
But McMahan never felt motion sickness when he was a helicopter repairman in Korea. After six months of helicopter school at Fort Rucker, Ala., he recounted patching bullet holes and monitoring dozens of gauges during test flights with a chief warrant officer (CW4).
“I liked what I was doing,” he said, “I about got blown away. Sometimes they’d get bullet holes that wouldn’t hurt the aircraft right away. Even if it wasn’t critical, they still had to be fixed. They had a special tape. I could tear off a piece of it and paste it on the holes.”
When the helicopters were deemed functional again, there were occasions when he had to wake the pilots. “They would be asleep and I’d give them a thumbs-up and say, ‘fuel flyable.’” He added with a laugh, “And they’d give me a …” [He gestures with his middle finger.]
None of the helicopters he repaired ever stalled during the test flights.
“Lucky,” he noted.
Luck may have played a hand, but there was certainly skill. While they were both in Korea, Campbell County’s four-star Gen. Carl Stiner congratulated him on a job well done.
McMahan said the time felt right to end his military career, retiring as an E-8 Master Sgt. after the Vietnam War.
“They finally said, ‘Well, you’ve done a good job and we’re going to let you go.’ I said I want out. Twenty-three and a half years. Eight and a half of those were overseas. Five and a half, combat with tanks and helicopters.”
Following his retirement, McMahan said he “just wanted to be a plain ol’ person.” He said, “I’d done everything I could do to win the war, whatever I had to do.”
Seven decades ago, a young man lied about his age. Now he jokes that he can’t count the number of years he has lived.
“‘Time changes everything,’” he said with a smirk. “That’s an old song, but it’s a true one.”