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
pilotswere 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.