History of the American Fighter Ace: World War II
By Bill Hess with expanded text by Bill Martin
December 7,1941 brought the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s formal entry into World War II. American fighter pilots were in action from the very first. Army pilot George Welch was credited with four Japanese aircraft during the attack. He would go on to become a 16-victory ace, adding to his score in the Southwest Pacific. The Japanese invasion of the Philippine Islands brought sharp but limited air action and from it emerged America’s first Army Air Force Ace, Boyd D. “Buzz” Wagner, who destroyed his fifth Japanese aircraft on 16 December 1941.
The next American Aces were produced by the American Volunteer Group in China. Recruited in mid-1941 to defend the Burma Road, 109 former Navy, Marine and Army Air Corps pilots signed on with the AVG. In a massive air battle over Rangoon on Christmas Day 1941, Robert P. “Duke” Hedman and Charles H. Older became the first Aces of the “Flying Tigers.” Using the mutual support tactics of leader and wingman as taught by their commander, Claire Chennault, the AVG was credited with destroying 297 Japanese aircraft for the loss of only nine pilots in action. Names like Robert H. Neale, David L. “Tex” Hill and Jack Newkirk became household words in America.
The US Navy was not far behind in producing its first ace of World War II. In one of the first strikes against Japanese bases in the South Pacific on February 20, 1942 the F4F Wildcat pilots of VF-3 had to defend their carrier, the USS Lexington, against an attack by enemy bombers. In the course of the action Edward J. “Butch” O’Hare remained as the lone pilot to intercept the second wave of nine enemy bombers. He downed five and dispersed the others who dropped their bombs wide of the target.
His action made him the Navy’s first ace, and Medal of Honor recipient, of World War II.
The Marine Corps didn’t have to wait long for action, either. Future Marine Corps aces Marion E. Carl and Charles M. Runz scored their first victories in the defense of Midway Island.
When the initial Marine Corps invasion took place at Guadalcanal in the Summer of 1942, its fighter pilots fought a desperate war in the air from their base at Henderson Field. John L. Smith, Robert E. Galer and Marion Carl began to run up scores immediately. Carl became the Marine’s first ace when he shot down his fifth Japanese aircraft on August 24th. They were followed by Joe Foss, who became the first American Ace to tie the 26-victory Eddie Rickenbacker of World War I.
In November 1942 the Americans invaded North Africa and green AAF units were thrown against the cream of the Luftwaffe. The P-38s, Spitfires and P-40s were hard-pressed to gain air superiority, but finally they did the impossible and helped cut the supply lines to Rommell’s Afrika Korps to win air superiority over the Mediterranean. Aces like
William J. “Dixie” Sloan, Harrison R. Thyng, Frank A. Hill, Jerry Collinsworth and Robert L. Baseler made their marks against the Luftwaffe.
In Northern Europe the fighter pilots of the Eighth Air Force sought to gain air superiority over Western Europe. Once more, it was a case of the AAF against the best of the Luftwaffe and the young P-47 outfits fought desperately to help the bombers, or “Big Friends”, on their way to the targets and on their way home in their quest to prove daylight bombing could survive in the ETO. They just didn’t have the range to go all the way to the target with the bombers. Nevertheless, the “Jug” pilots did their best and the roll of aces in the Eighth Air Force began to grow. Names like “Hub” Zemke, David Schilling, Don Blakeslee, “Gabby” Gabreski, Charles London, Eugene Roberts, Walter Beckham and the Johnsons, Bob and Jerry, were prominent on the front pages.
In the Southwest Pacific, America’s fighter pilots held on in New Guinea by the skin of their teeth. The Bell P-39 just couldn’t cut it against the Japanese at altitude and there just weren’t enough P-40s. Finally the great day came when the P-38 Lightning arrived. For a combat theater that was primarily covered with water, this was the bird! It was also a great performer and could take on anything the Japanese could put up against it. Pilots like Jay T. Robbins, Tommy Lynch, Dick Bong, Tommy McGuire and Gerald Johnson began to pile up scores. In the South Pacific in the Solomons area the fighter pilots of the Thirteenth Air Force struggled with a handful of P-40s and P-38s. Men like Robert B. Westbrook, John Mitchell and Bill Harris led the way. On April 18, 1943, pilots of the 347th Fighter Group under the leadership of
John Mitchell successfully accomplished one of the outstanding missions of World War II when they intercepted and shot down the aircraft carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of the Japanese Fleet. Fighter aces Rex Barber,
Tom Lanphier and Besby Holmes were in on the final kill.
Late 1943 in the Pacific saw the arrival of the first P-47s under the able leadership of Neel Kearby who would become a top Ace and receive the Medal of Honor before being killed in action. John T. Blackburn’s land-based VF-17 won fame over the Solomons, as did Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s VMF-214 “Black Sheep” Squadron. Boyington was to shoot down 22 Japanese aircraft before he himself was downed to become a prisoner of war.
The China Air Task Force and later the Fourteenth Air Force in China and the Tenth Air Force in India continued to take their toll from the Japanese in the CBI in 1943. New fighter pilots had come on the scene and names like John Alison, Robert L. Scott, Bruce Holloway and John Hampshire headed up the list of fighter aces in that theater.
It might be said that the year 1944 was the year of the fighter Ace in the skies above all theaters during World War II. The P-51 Mustang came to Northern Europe and gave the fighter pilots the range to go all the way to the target with the bombers. The 354th Fighter Group of the Ninth Air Force initiated the Mustang action and their success was immediate. Newcomers such as Glen Eagleston, Jack Bradley,
Dick Turner and Don Beerbower began to run up scores and James H. Howard won the only Medal of Honor awarded a fighter pilot in the European Theater. The Eighth Air Force begged for and got the the Mustangs and immediately began to show a marked increase in success. Don Gentile and John Godfrey of the 4th Fighter Group hit the headlines, while the scores of George Preddy and John C. Meyer of the
352nd continued to grow. The new 357th Fighter Group got its share of publicity with Aces like Leonard K. “Kit” Carson, C.E. “Bud” Anderson, Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, Robert W. Foy and Richard A. “Bud” Peterson.
D-Day on Normandy came and the Luftwaffe had been driven from the skies. The aces had to get out and seek the enemy. If he wouldn’t come up in the air, the order was to go down and get him on the ground. The strafing campaign was costly and cost Eighth Air Force many of its outstanding pilots. To encourage strafing the Eighth began crediting its pilots with aircraft destroyed on the ground and was the only numbered air force in Europe to do 80. Never was so much confusion added to the realm of “Acedom”. When the USAAF ruled against these ground victories after the war in compiling its official list of WWII victories, many “ground Aces” found themselves dropped from the rolls. The final decision was that, since no other numbered air force nor other branch of service recognized “ground kills”, neither would the Eighth nor the China-Burma-India Theater.
Late 1944 saw the introduction of the German jets in Northern Europe. This could have been disastrous to the bombers, but fortunately they did not become available in sufficient quantity to be effective. The American fighter pilots improvised tactics whereby they were able to neutralize the jet threat by catching the jets taking off or landing or by strafing them on the ground.
In the Mediterranean the formation of the Fifteenth Air Force as the strategic bombing arm brought about the formation a large escort force comprised of P-51s and P-38s. With the advent of the long-range missions came the opportunity for the escort pilots to score against a diminishing Luftwaffe. Fighter Aces such as John Voll, H.H.”Herky” Green, John “Sully” Varnell, Sam Brown and Jim Brooks downed German interceptors in great numbers over the Balkans and Southern Germany. By September of 1944 the Luftwaffe was all but completely absent from the skies of the Mediterranean.
The majority of the US Navy’s fighter Aces were made in 1944. The Battles of the Philippine Sea set the stage for enormous air battles where scores of Japanese aircraft were shot from the skies. David McCampbell, Alex Vraciu, Russell Reiserer and Wilbur “Spider” Webb were among those who got five or more on June 19, 1944, at the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”.
October presented another golden opportunity for the Hellcat pilots and they made the most of it. Dave McCampbell set the all-time record for victories in one day for American Aces when he downed nine at Leyte on October 24th.
The Fifth Air Force, too, had a rash of fighter Aces made in the Fall of 1944 during the invasion of the Philippines. Familiar names like Bong, McGuire and Gerald Johnson ran scores higher while men like Kenny Giroux, Robert G. West and Joseph M. Forster got the majority of their victories over the Philippines. By the early part of 1945, the Fifth Air Force, too, had just about run out of opposition.
In China aerial opposition also came to a close in late 1944. The P-40s, P-51s and P-38s dominated the skies and struck terror in the hearts of the enemy on the ground and in ports of China. John C. “Pappy” Herbst and Edward O. McComas were couple of oldsters who became high-scoring fighter Aces in the CBI and showed the youngsters how it was done. Little-publicized P-38 Aces like Walter Duke and Maxwell Glenn carried the war to Hong Kong and Formosa and ran up able scores against the enemy.
The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. Allied airplanes dominated the skies over Northern Europe completely. Some new Aces were made and some of the old timers
added to their scores, but enemy aircraft were few and far between. The last fighter pilot to become an ace in the ETO was Leland A. Larson of Ninth Air Force, who downed his fifth Luftwaffe fighter on May 8, 1945.
The year 1945 in the Pacific brought about another group of fighter aces. These were the Navy and Marine Corps pilots aboard the carriers that brought the war to the Japanese home islands and who withstood the kamikaze attacks off Okinawa. Eugene A. Valencia got his “mowing machine” from VF-9 working and his flight alone accounted for some 50 victories against the Japanese. George C. Axtell and his carrier-born Marines of the “Death Rattler” squadron shot down 124 1/2 enemy aircraft in less than two months of aerial combat.
The USAAF fighter pilots of the Central Pacific got into action escorting the B-29s to Japan and began to get into the scoring column. Robert Moore and James Tapp were two of the aces whose names became prominent in Seventh Fighter Command during that period. The last American fighter ace of World War II was Oscar Perdomo of the 464th Fighter Squadron, who downed five Japanese aircraft on August 13, 1945.
Of the thousands of fighter pilots who had taken to the skies in World War II only 1,279 became fighter aces. This total is composed of 735 USAAF aces, 381 Navy aces, 122 Marine Corps aces, 22 Americans who became aces flying with the Royal Air Force, and 19 aces in the AVG.