Let’s hear it for the big guy


Tall, blond and good looking, Joe McCarthy was the image of an all-American war hero. A New Yorker with Irish roots, he became a champion swimmer and baseball player, and worked as a life guard at Coney Island. In his late teens, he and his friend Don Curtin became interested in flying and took lessons at Roosevelt Field, the busiest airfield in the USA.
When the war started, Joe made several attempts to join the US Air Corps but was rebuffed because he didn’t have a college degree. By May 1941, he was getting frustrated and so he and Don decided to take an overnight bus up to Ottawa in Canada, and became two of the almost 9000 American citizens who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Soon after Christmas they were qualified pilots and, with their new wings stitched on their uniforms, were on board a ship bound for Liverpool.
Joe’s story has now been told in a terrific new biography, Big Joe McCarthy: The RCAF’s American Dambuster by Dave Birrell. It is splendidly illustrated with many photos from the McCarthy family collection and other sources, and is a welcome addition to the growing number of biographies of individual Dambusters.
We learn about Joe’s time in 97 Squadron where by March 1943 he had completed a tour of 33 operations. How Guy Gibson phoned to ask him personally to join the new squadron he was setting up for a special secret operation. The low level training and the briefing where the crews were finally told what were their targets. And the shambles of his delayed take off on the raid, when his original aircraft was discovered to have a coolant leak.
Joe had been tasked to lead the section of five aircraft to attack the Sorpe Dam, and his replacement Lancaster was the only one which actually reached it. Despite his successful attack, and one later that night by fellow Canadian Ken Brown from the third wave, the dam was not breached but they were able to divert past the Möhne Dam on the way home and observe their colleagues’ successful work.
Joe was to fly an astonishing 67 operations before he was taken off active flying a month after D Day, along with Leonard Cheshire and Les Munro. All three protested, but the authorities were adamant. After the war, he went back to Canada and in order to stay in the RCAF took Canadian nationality. He finally retired in 1968.
Joe was a fine pilot and his logbooks recall that over his career he flew nearly 70 different types of aircraft. But he wasn’t only a flyer – he was a big man with a big sense of humour and a relaxed way of commanding those who served under him. His many exploits are well recorded here. The Verey cartridges dropped down a chimney into Cheshire’s fireplace and the horse ridden between into both the Sergeants and Officers Messes on a New Year’s Day after the war are two particular highlights.
Dave Birrell was a founding director of the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta, and is an expert on the tremendous contribution of Canadian aircrew during the Second World War. Few deserve more praise than the big guy from New York.
Big Joe McCarthy by Dave Birrell is published by Red Kite and distributed by Wing Leader.

7 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for the big guy

  1. Roy Eaton March 13, 2013 / 12:56 pm

    My great uncle Leonard Eaton flew with Joe in 97 Squadron and 617 Squadron. He was Wireless Operator and survived the war.

    • Geraint Jones May 17, 2013 / 7:21 am

      Hi, was he also known as Tim Eaton ? and did he become a teacher in Flint,North Wales ?

  2. Geraldine mcloughlin November 19, 2013 / 7:40 pm

    Hi this is Brian Cosens son of Doris Cosens former Brooks who was the niece of Leonard eaton of the dam busters

  3. Bryan Dixon July 21, 2014 / 7:34 pm

    Hi Brian, i live in flint N Wales were we are trying to find out if Leonard taught at flint high school,where i was a pupil in the sixties

    • G Jones July 21, 2014 / 9:22 pm

      HI, see my earlier comments. Tim Eaton was a friend of my father who was also a teacher (he lived near us in Flint Mountain(. It is the same Mr Eaton who taught in Flint High who served as a wireless operator on the Dambuster raid. There is a book on the subject where Tim Eaton is on the front cover of a book in a group photograph of one of the crews. Cannot remember the books name but it was in the RAF Cosford museum book shop.

  4. A Mintey August 4, 2015 / 7:35 pm

    Tim Eaton was OC 2518 (Flint) Sqn Air Cadets throughout the 80s and I always believed that he had flown on the Dams Raid. As far as I recall though, ‘Tim’s’ first name was actually Ernest. The Canadians on his squadron nicknamed him Tim Eaton after the Canadian department store of the same name.
    Having discovered that there was no Ernest (or Tim) Eaton that flew on the raid, I suspect that he was possibly posted on to the squadron later and the fact that he flew with the ‘Dambusters’, somehow came to imply that he actually took part in the raid. I hope I can be proved wrong, but I have a feeling that it is probably a coincidence that another Eaton (Leonard) actually flew on the raid. The image that I have in my mind of Tim, sadly doesn’t much resemble the photograph that is frequently shown of Leonard.

    • A Mintey August 4, 2015 / 7:54 pm

      According to records, Len Eaton died in Manchester on 22 March 1974 and was cremated at Manchester Crematorium. Tim Eaton was still teaching at Flint High School in the 80s.

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