Growing up in the 1950s, Mark Macgruder realized vaguely that his father had done something pretty big in World War II, but he didn't know how big until many years later.
"When you're a kid, you have no idea that you have a hero as a father," Macgruder said last week. "I just knew him as Dad. I never realized the full scope of what he accomplished until I started on the book."
That book is "Nightfighter: Radar Intercept Killer," Macgruder's account of the remarkable life of his father, Lexington native Marion M. "Black Mac" Macgruder, a Marine Corps pilot who pioneered American nightfighting tactics during the war in the Pacific.
Nightfighters were specially equipped fighter planes that flew at night, hiding high up in the darkness to detect incoming enemy planes, track them with radar and shoot them down. It was dangerous work that challenged even the bravest and most skilled pilots. Marion Macgruder not only had the bravery and skill, he essentially 'wrote the book' on night combat flying during the war, according to his son.
"He commanded the top Nightfighter squadron of World War II, Black Mac's Killers," Mark Magruder said. "It was the only U.S. fighter squadron in the war to be named for its commanding officer."
But back in the 1930s, when Marion Macgruder was just a boisterous kid at Henry Clay High School, many folks around Lexington might have had trouble imagining him in a hero's role.
The son of William and Agusta Tong Macgruder, Marion Macgruder grew up at 456 Rose Lane.
"His name was Marion, and back in those days in a rural community you had to be either tough or a wimp," Mark Magruder said in a telephone interview from his Phoenix home. "And my dad was tough."
Magruder said his father was kicked out of Henry Clay no less than three times for various pranks and acts of mischief.
With some help and good luck, Marion Macgruder made it into the University of Kentucky, where ROTC was required.
"It was a class he would never have taken himself," his son said. "But he ended up loving it. He loved the discipline. It totally turned his life around."
When Macgruder graduated from UK — with honors — he was a champion Golden Gloves boxer, captain of the Pershing Rifles drill team, and an ROTC cadet colonel. He was commissioned in the U.S. Army, but switched to the Marine Corps.
About that time, extraordinary things started happening in Marion Macgruder's life.
The Marine Corps sent him to Washington, DC, where he was assigned to the White House and got to know President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Two years later, he married his hometown sweetheart, and was accepted for Marine flight training.
When war came, the U.S, Navy realized that its Nightfighter program was inadequate. So, Macgruder and a few other U.S. pilots were sent to England to train with the Royal Air Force, which had mastered nightfighting in its battles with the German Air Force. The Brits nicknamed Macgruder "Black Mac," supposely for his dark black hair.
Back home, Macgruder briefed Navy officers on British Nightfighter tactics. Trouble was the British used twin-engine planes, each with a pilot and a radar operator. The U.S. Navy, however, wanted to use single-seat, single-engine planes that could operate from aircraft carriers.
Macgruder, a major by now, was ordered to rewrite British methods into a new Nightfighter plan suitable for the Navy. That done, he was named commander of Squadron VMF(N)-533, one of the first three Nightfighter units the Marine Corps created for the war.
"So, they go out to the Pacific, and break all the records for nightfighting, in kills, in safety, in everything," Mark Macgruder says. "Not many people know about our nightfighting in World War II now, because it was all top secret stuff at the time."
Macgruder got the call again when U.S. forces invaded Okinawa in April, 1945, kicking off the biggest battle of the Pacific War. Navy commanders wanted Macgruder's nightfighters in the fight, but they were 1,000 miles away in the Marshall Islands.
"No problem," Mac Macgruder replied, "we'll fly over."
Commanders were flabbergasted, according to Mark Macgruder.
"They told Dad, you're crazy; you can't fly single-engine planes that far.' Dad said, 'If I say I can do it, I can do it.'"
And he did, leading his squadron on what Mark Macgruder says was "the longest flight by single-engine fighters in World War II. Everything they did was incredible."
After the war ended, Mac Macgruder remained in the Marines until retiring as a colonel in 1961. He then became a successful owner of McDonald's restaurant franchises in the western U.S. But he never talked much about his war service.
Mark Macgruder, however, began to notice that men who'd served in the war with his father would periodically come by to visit, tell old stories and talk about how his father's leadership had changed their lives.
"I was so small that I was allowed to be in the room when they talked and I began to soak up all these stories," Mark Macgruder said. "And after my father passed away in 1997, I wanted to tell his story."
Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.