Medal of Honor Heroes
WWI, WWII and Korean War Fighter Pilots
By Stephen Sherman, Aug. 2002. Updated June 27, 2011.
Fifteen of the American aces profiled on this web site were awarded the (Congressional) Medal of Honor. In chronological order, here is a brief introduction to those fifteen heroes, with links to their pages and relevant sources.
It is interesting to note that nine of the recipients were Marine Corps aviators who flew in the Solomons campaign, four were Army Air Force fliers in the Pacific, and two were Navy fliers in the Pacific. I don't know why the Marines dominated these awards, although I'm sure that the Marines who visit this site would be willing to tell me. :) Possibly the dramatic events at Guadalcanal in the first year of the war riveted the public's attention in those days.
Nor do I know why the Pacific Theater in general dominated the award. James Howard, a Flying Tiger who served in the ETO - flying Mustangs with the 354th FG, also won the Medal of Honor. As far as I know, he was the only fighter pilot in the European Theater to receive the Medal of Honor.
Several bomber aircrew, notably B-24 Liberator crewmen who flew the mission over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, also received the Medal of Honor.
In the Korean War, fighter pilots Louis Sebille, George Davis, and Thomas Hudner won the MoH. Read about Hudner's dramatic MoH mission, an attempted rescue of our first Black naval aviator.
|WWI||World War Two||Korea|
|Frank Luke||Butch O'Hare
|Jefferson DeBlanc||Pappy Boyington||Thomas Hudner
The first ace to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor was Butch O'Hare, for his daring attack on nine Betty bombers heading for the aircraft carrier Lexington, on February 20, 1942. It was a dark time for the Allies, especially for the Americans in the Pacific.
"Where is the Navy?" was a common complaint in those days. When Butch O'Hare lit into the Japanese bombers and shot down six of them, he almost certainly saved the carrier. And every American knew "where the Navy was"! President Roosevelt pinned the medal on Butch O'Hare and the country had its first naval aviation hero. Following his death in 1943, Chicago's airport was named O'Hare Airport in his honor.
Read the Butch O'Hare article on this site.
Order Fateful Rendezvous: The Life of Butch O'Hare at Amazon.com. Written by Steve Ewing and John B. Lundstrom, it is the definitive biography of Butch O'Hare, approved by the O'Hare family. Thoroughly researched and very readable. Even the footnotes are worth reading.
Major John L. Smith, Marine Fighting Squadron 223 (VMF-223), fought in the air battle for Guadalcanal. He scored 19 victories in the crucial August-September 1942 period and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership and his personal achievements in aerial combat. He and his squadron of Wildcat pilots arrived on Guadalcanal on August 20, when the American hold on the island was extremely tenuous. He flew almost daily missions, in a terrible battle of attrition, to defend the base against the Japanese air assaults. On one memorable day, August 30, he shot down four Zeroes.
Read the John L. Smith article on this site, which includes the text of his MoH citation.
Major Robert Galer, VMF-224, also played a key role in 'Cactus Air Force' defense of the skies over Guadalcanal. Arriving there on August 30, 1942 with his squadron, his team bore the brunt of the air battle, as Smith's VMF-224 was down to five planes by this time. Major Galer shot down thirteen Japanese planes while at Guadalcanal.Citation
For conspicuous heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as Leader of Marine Fighting Squadron TWO TWENTY-FOUR in aerial combat with enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands Area, August-September 1942. Leading his squadron repeatedly in daring and aggressive raids against Japanese aerial forces, vastly superior in numbers, Major Galer availed himself of every favorable attack opportunity, individually shooting down 11 enemy bomber and fighter aircraft over a period of 29 days. Though suffering the extreme physical strain attendant upon protracted fighter operations at an altitude above 25,000 feet, the squadron under his zealous and inspiring leadership, shot down a total of 27 Japanese planes. His superb airmanship, his outstanding skill and personal valor reflect great credit upon Major Galer's gallant fighting spirit and upon the United States Naval Service.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
President of the United States
One of the finest fighter pilots the Marine Corps ever produced also had one of the shortest combat careers. Lt. Col. Harold W. Bauer, aka "The Coach" or "Indian Joe" also led a Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF-212) during the Guadalcanal campaign. Among his legendary achievements was the destruction of four Val dive bombers that were attacking the destroyer McFarland on October 16, 1942.
Read the Harold Bauer article on this site, which describes The Coach's last mission and includes the text of his MoH citation.
Buy The Cactus Air Force at Amazon.com. This book covers the critical early months of the Guadalcanal air campaign, from August through November, 1942. Read about Smith, Foss, Bauer, Galer, and others.
Joe Foss was the fourth Marine squadron leader at Guadalcanal to win the Medal of Honor. He led VMF-121 in combat from October, 1942 through January, 1943, shooting down 26 planes in eight weeks of active flying. He personally led the evening air search for Col. Bauer on November 13. Joe Foss survived being shot down over The Slot and also survived a bout with malaria. He went on to a very successful post-war career, including Governor of South Dakota, President of the NRA, and President of the old American Football League.
Read the Joe Foss article on this site, which includes the text of his MoH citation.
Buy Wildcat Aces of World War 2 at Amazon.com. Highlights of the book include a profile of Joe Foss, and a wartime history of VMF-121. There are tables of Wildcat aces for: the year 1942, the squadron VMF-121, the year 1943, and the FM-2 pilots.
Jefferson DeBlanc earned the Medal of Honor for downing five Zeros in the Solomons on January 31, 1943
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Leader of a Section of Six Fighter Planes in VMF-112, during aerial operations against enemy Japanese forces off Kolombangara Island in the Solomons Group, 31 January 1943.
Taking off with section as escort for a strike force of dive bombers and torpedo planes ordered to attack Japanese surface vessels, First Lieutenant DeBlanc led his flight directly to the target area where, at 14.000 feet. our strike force encountered a large number of Japanese Zeros protecting the enemy's surface craft. In company with the other fighters, First Lieutenant DeBlanc instantly engaged the hostile planes and aggressively countered their repeated attempts to drive off our bombers, persevering in his efforts to protect the diving planes and waging fierce combat until, picking up a call for assistance from the dive bombers under attack by enemy float planes at 1,000 feet, he broke off his engagement with the Zeros, plunged into the formation of float planes and disrupted the savage attack, enabling our dive bombers and torpedo planes to complete their runs on the Japanese surface disposition and to withdraw without further incident.
Although his escort mission was fulfilled upon the safe retirement of the bombers, First Lieutenant DeBlanc courageously remained on the scene despite a rapidly diminishing fuel supply and , boldly challenging the enemy's superior number of float planes, fought a valiant battle against terrific odds, seizing the tactical advantage and striking repeatedly to destroy three of the hostile aircraft and to disperse the remainder. Prepared to maneuver his damaged plane back to base, he had climbed aloft and set his course when he discovered two Zeros closing in behind. Undaunted, he opened fire and blasted both Zeros from the sky in short, bitterly fought action which resulted in such hopeless damage to his plane that he was forced to bail out at a perilously low altitude atop the trees on enemy-held Kolombangara. A gallant officer, a superb airman and an indomitable fighter, First Lieutenant DeBlanc had rendered decisive assistance during a critical stage of operations, and his unwavering fortitude in the face of overwhelming opposition reflects the highest credit upon himself and adds new luster to the traditions of the United States Naval Service.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
President of the United States
James Swett was the last Guadalcanal-based Marine to earn the nation's highest military honor. Flying a Wildcat from Henderson Field on April 7, 1943, he shot down seven Val dive-bombers, part of Yamamoto's desperate aerial counter-attack.
Read the Jim Swett article on this site, which describes the April 7 mission in detail and includes the text of his MoH citation.
Buy Aces Against Japan: Vol II at Amazon.com, which features the gripping story of Swett's experiences the day that the kamikazes hit USS Hornet.
On August 30, 1943, Ken Walsh fought an incredible battle against 50 Japanese aircraft, shooting down four enemy fighters before he had to ditch his damaged Corsair. Assigned to escort some B-24's to Bougainville, his Corsair soon developed engine problems. He landed and secured a replacement. Continuing alone, he attacked a gaggle of Zeros that were going after the B-24s, downing two of them. On the way back he assisted some other B-24s and downed more two Zeros. But one of the Japs damaged Walsh's Corsair, and he was forced to make his third water landing in six months. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for this mission.
Read the Ken Walsh article on this site, which describes a number of his Corsair missions.
Buy Corsair Aces of World War 2 at Amazon.com
Neel Kearby was the CO of the U.S. Army Air Force's 348th Fighter Group, which flew P-47's in support of the Allied drive in New Guinea. On October 11, 1943, Kearby led his Thunderbolts on a raid against the Japanese stronghold at Wewak and shot down six planes. General MacArthur presented the award to Col. Kearby in January, 1944. Two months later a Zero sent Kearby's Thunderbolt crashing down into the New Guinea jungles.
Read the Neel Kearby article on this site.
Buy Kearby's Thunderbolts at Amazon.com, a Schiffer Military History publication by John Stanaway that tells how Kearby and other aces of the 348th, flying a plane that was despised in the theater, made themselves terrors of the Pacific skies.
Robert Hanson flew Corsairs for the Marine Corps, shooting down 25 planes between August, 1943 and February, 1944. Unfortunately, he went down while strafing a lighthouse off Cape St. George. Like many who died young, he didn't leave behind much of a documentary record.
Read the Robert Hanson article on this site, which includes the text of his MoH citation.
Undoubtedly the most famous American ace of World War Two, Gregory 'Pappy' Boyington was awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits in December, 1943. He led the famous 'Black Sheep Squadron', VMF-214, during the latter part of 1943, when they claimed 197 enemy planes destroyed or damaged. He was shot down on January 3, 1944, became a POW, survived, and came home to a hero's welcome.
Read the Pappy Boyington article on this site.
Pappy Boyington wrote "Scratch a hero and inside, you'll find a bum." Buy Baa Baa Black Sheep at Amazon.com, and draw your own conclusions. It's been a best seller since it was first written 40 years ago. His open admission of all-too human weaknesses make up a big part of the book's appeal.
The Navy's leading ace, David McCampbell, was the only carrier pilot other than Ed O'Hare to win the Medal of Honor. Also defending his carrier, on October 24, 1944 he shot down nine Japanese aircraft. He also provided outstanding leadership to VF-15 and the entire Air Group 15, which he commanded.
Read the David McCampbell article on this site, which describes his role as Essex' CAG and his successes during the Marianas Turkey Shoot and on his Medal of Honor mission.
America's Ace of Aces, Richard Bong, downed 40 Japanese planes during the Pacific War. While his Medal of Honor citation specifically mentioned the October - November, 1944 period, he really earned our highest military honor for his record as America's top ace. General MacArthur presented him with the medal on the Tacloban airfield on December 12, 1944.
Read the Richard Bong article, which summarizes his combat career.
Buy P-38 Lightning Aces of the Pacific at Amazon.com. Bong flew a P-38 during all of his successful combat missions.
Tommy McGuire spent his combat tour with the 475th Fighter Group in pursuit of Bong's record. When Bong went home with 40 kills, McGuire had 38, and it seemed a sure thing for him to pass Bong's tally, and become America's new top ace. He earned the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in December, 1944 - January, 1945. But he didn't live to break Bong's record.
Read the Tommy McGuire article, describing his youth, his training, his brief friendship with Charles Lindbergh, and his tragic end.
The Last Great Ace: The Life of Major Thomas B. McGuire, Jr. , by Charles A. Martin re-creates McGuire's life story, 50 years after the fact. In a work that my wife called "a real labor of love." The author, Charles Martin, worked with archival records, diaries, and interviews with surviving associates to tell McGuire's story.
Bill Shomo only saw 14 enemy aircraft during his combat tour. He shot down eight of them, getting seven of them on January 11, 1945, a feat which erned him the Medal of Honor.
Read the Bill Shomo article, that tells about his Medal of Honor mission.