James McClain was born at Des Moines on March 10, 1923 and attended high school at Waterloo followed by Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls.
In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. After completing Navigator training, he was assigned to the 564th Squadron, 389th Bomb Group, in Benghazi, Libya.
Jim was a navigator on a B-24D Liberator during Operation Tidal Wave, a daring low level attack on the Ploesti, Romania oil refineries on August 1, 1943. McClainâ€™s crew took off in a B-24D, â€œOld Blister Butt,â€ for the Steau Romana Refinery located at Campina, Romania. Despite limited visibility, McClainâ€™s group kept together. Once on the bomb run, his crew descended to 250 feet and prepared to attack. They were met with a barrage of heavy ground fire and flak. The refinery exploded in front of their airplane. While being fired upon, Jim returned fire with his 50 caliber nose gun. Against orders not to play nursemaid to damaged aircraft, McClain and his crew voted to turn around to escort another B-24D, â€œOld Irish,â€ back to safety. They returned safely without a single scratch on Old Blister Butt after flying 14 Â½ hours.
Of 178 aircraft that took off that day, only 88 aircraft returned. 579 of 1,763 men were killed, wounded, shot down, or missing in action. The Ploesti Raid was the most highly decorated mission in U.S. history with five Medals of Honor awarded.
McClain completed 25 combat missions, making him eligible to return to the U.S. Instead he volunteered to work on General Timberlakeâ€™s staff as wing navigator in England. In 1944 he returned to the U.S. as Instructions Squadron Commander at Hondo Field. He was awarded 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses for Heroism.
After the war ended, he attended the University of Iowa, earning his BAâ€™s in Economics and History.