October 11, 1943
The weather over Papua, New Guinea, improved greatly after the first week in October, and several flights of Kearby's P-47s were busily engaged in routine and uneventful escort cover for transports to Nadzab. The morning sky was clear, and with most of his pilots protecting troop and supply movements, Lieutenant Colonel Kearby believed it might be the perfect moment for a free-roving patrol to seek out enemy aircraft in the Wewak area.
In preceding weeks Kenney's fighters had so dominated the air that it was getting harder and harder for his pilots to find targets and score victories. Kearby had long been a proponent of using his fighters not only defensively, as protection for troop movements, but as offensive tools to freely roam the region tempting the Japanese to come out and fight. The morning of October 11 seemed the perfect moment to test that strategy.
Captain John Moore, as operations officer for the 341st Squadron, was not scheduled for any of that day's missions and volunteered to fly as Kearby's wingman. Major Raymond Gallagher, who commanded Kearby's 342d Squadron, volunteered to join the two men, and Captain Bill Dunham agreed to fly wing for Gallagher. Thus were the circumstances that saw the Group's ranking officers depart Ward's Drome at 9:30 a.m. for a flight west to Wewak, while the rest of the Groups pilots were tending to their mundane patrols around Nazdab.
Cruising west at 28,000 feet, by eleven o'clock Kearby's flight of four Thunderbolts had a clear, panoramic view of the Wewak area fifty miles ahead and five miles below. Kearby instructed his pilots to drop their wing tanks and prepare for action. With fuel now limited, he hoped that the enemy would rise quickly to the bait.
In fact the enemy had ALREADY risen to the bait. Lieutenant Colonel Tamiya Teranishi, commander of the Japanese 14th Fighter/Bomber group, was visiting Wewak when radar picked up the incoming Thunderbolts from fifty miles out. He ordered numerous fighters airborne from their fields in the vicinity, then climbed in an Oscar himself and took off to lead the intercepting force. Once rendezvoused with the other fighters he had called into action, his flight would number more than two dozen armed fighters: nimble Oscars and deadly Tonys.
At 11:15 Lieutenant Colonel Kearby became aware of a lone plane more than a mile below him and off to the left. The Jap plane apparently could not see the incoming Thunderbolts, which were flying east-to-west out of the sun. There was no evasive action by the enemy pilot. Kearby went into a screaming dive, closing in to positively identify the lone airplane as Japanese by the bright, red meatballs on its wings. Kearby opening fire when he had closed to within 300 yards. The devastating fire tore holes in metal and ruptured the fuel tanks, sending the Oscar and surprised pilot plummeting earthward like a flaming comet. (Post-war Japanese reports of the October 11 combat action indicated that the last communication the fighters rushing to join Lieutenant Colonel Teranishi in the air received from their commander came at 11:25 a.m. Neel Kearby had not only claimed his fourth victory, but most probably was responsible for the death of a Japanese hero and group commander.)
Kearby's trailing Thunderbolts had nothing left to shoot at as they passed through the trailing smoke of Teranishi's falling Oscar, moments behind their leader. Then Major Gallagher spotted a lone fighter off the coast, a few miles out to sea and heading towards Wewak. Diverting from his three comrades, he sped off alone to try and claim what would be his first victory. The enemy fighter spotted the incoming Thunderbolt moments before Gallagher reached combat range and wisely ducked into a nearby cloud. Disappointed, Gallagher headed back towards the island to rejoin his comrades. Below he saw nothing but jungle, to the right and left he could see nothing but blue sky. He had spent too much time chasing the elusive enemy fighter and now was far behind Kearby and the two other American pilots. It was a cruel turn of luck, for even at that moment the ranking officers of the 348th Fighter Group were about to engage in the fight of their lives--and an historic one at that.
After shooting down the Oscar, Kearby lead his formation back up to 26,000 feet for one final pass over Wewak. There were no more planes in sight, including Major Gallagher's, so he planned to make one final sweep and then head for home. Kearby assumed they would rendezvous with Gallagher en route.
Any mission where a flight got even a single victory without losing one of their own was a successful mission, and Kearby would not lament the lack of additional targets, or make the deadly error of staying too long and running out of gas on the way home. The mission appeared to be complete when he heard Captain Dunham's voice over the radio announcing, "We've got bogeys coming in from the coast...LOTS OF 'EM!"
"I see them," Captain Moore answered back. "I count about a dozen of 'em, maybe more...mostly Tonys I think, with a few Zekes and Oscars."
Kearby looked off in the distance towards the enemy field at Boram and it was hard to miss the large formation of fighters, cruising at 15,000 feet two miles below. A quick count revealed more than a dozen of them. Undoubtedly they were the aircraft that had scrambled earlier on Lieutenant Colonel Teranishi's alert, and which were now looking for any sign of their silent Japanese commander. None seemed to be aware of the Thunderbolts in the distance and miles above them.
Four miles out to sea and about fourteen miles from the airfield, Kearby saw another flight of at least a dozen Japanese bombers. They were probably returning from a mission and flying casually home at 5,000 feet. The air was suddenly filled with targets. It was the kind of shooting gallery any hot-shot fighter pilot would love to find, unless... he was outnumbered at least eight-to-one as Kearby and his two other Thunderbolts were.
"Let's take 'em," Captain Dunham said eagerly. He had not yet scored his first victory and Moore had only one. Suddenly, it seemed, they had the whole Japanese air force in their sights, and both young officers were itching for a fight. Kearby understood their eagerness, recognized the excitement in their voices, and recalled the moment he had sighted his own first target. He also remembered how, in his adrenaline-soaked eagerness, he had nearly endangered the mission. Kearby the tactician would not make the same mistake twice. Before issuing orders he reviewed the combat situation that was building, and this time he remained cool and calculating.
"Hang on guys. We'll get them, but let's get in position first. Follow me. They don't see us. We're miles above them. This is the moment we've been waiting for, the chance to dive out of the ceiling on an unsuspecting enemy and tear them apart." At last, after routine missions and luck-of-the-draw air battles limited by the tactic of waiting for enemy fighters to attack, Kearby's Thunderbolts had the opportunity to do what they had been designed to do--go on the offense.
Kearby moved his flight behind the fighters, leveling off 8,000 feet above them. Still unseen, the P-47s were poised to strike. When they did, the attack came with unstoppable fury, three Thunderbolts screaming downward and into the enemy formation at 425 miles per hour. A dozen 50-caliber machine guns spewed lethal, half-inch rounds. Before the enemy pilots even knew they were under attack the lead Oscar burst into flames and spiraled into the surf along the New Guinea coast. Neel Kearby had just become an ACE!
Even as the first victim fell and Kearby turned to attack and destroy his third Oscar of the day, one of the trailing Jap pilots recovered quickly and slipped his armed Tony in on Kearby's tail. Moments before the enemy pilot could unleash his guns on the American flight leader, the Tony itself began to shudder under a withering hail of machine-gun bullets. Captain Dunham had been on his commander's wing when the Thunderbolts went into a dive, and had quickly slipped in to cover Kearby's tail. As the enemy formation scattered, there was no time for Dunham to exult in his own first victory. That would come later. The Thunderbolts were now at lower altitudes where their maneuverability could not match that of the remaining enemy planes. The celebration would have to wait...right now it was time to fight.
Captain Moore resisted the urge to dive into the fray. It was hard to watch the ongoing fight and not be a part of it but, as the trailing aircraft, it was Moore's responsibility to hang back far enough to see everything that was happening and pounce immediately if another enemy fighter got on Kearby's tail. Mentally he ticked off the tally: one for Dunham, THREE now for Kearby, and the unstoppable Texan wasn't ready to let any enemy pilot prematurely lay claim to the title "survivor."
Even before Dunham's kill hit the ground to explode in the jungle, another Oscar felt the wrath of Kearby's guns, spiraling downward to start its own fire in the foliage below. "My God, FOUR of them," Captain Moore said to himself in amazement. "And all in less time than it takes to light a cigarette."
Before the enemy could scatter further, Moore finally got a kill of his own. It was his second in three weeks, bringing the day's total to SIX for the three pilots. And then, with all enemy opposition fading quickly into distant clouds for protection from the man who had shot down four of their comrades in mere seconds, Moore executed a series of lazy circles through the area, counting fires and confirming his victory and those of his two friends.
When the last targets vanished, scattering for safety, Major Gallagher flashed in from the sea. He located his flight leader from the signs of combat but it was too late to engage the enemy. Below him both surf and jungle burned with at least half-a-dozen fires, mute testimony to the great battle that had just taken place. The fight was over and low on fuel, Kearby, Gallagher, and Dunham headed for home.
Behind the lead fighters and still out of visual contact, Captain Moore climbed to 16,000 feet to catch up to his three comrades. It was twenty miles before he at last saw caught sight of one of the homeward-bound Thunderbolts. It appeared to be alone, 4,000 feet below him and surrounded by a swarm of Jap fighters. Moore saw the P-47 pilot destroy one of the attacking Tonys but it was obvious the American had bitten off more than he could chew when he had single-handed attacked the formation. Any man that gutsy had to be Kearby, and if it was, then the pilot below him had just destroyed his FIFTH enemy aircraft--an ACE IN A DAY!
Diving to the rescue, Moore lined up on the last Tony in a flight of three. His first burst ruptured oil lines and the fighter began trailing smoke. A second volley turned the Jap fighter into flaming, molten metal, devoid of airfoil and dropping like a rock. "Bingo!" He shouted in exuberance. It was his second victory of the day, third so far in the war. Then he looked in his mirror and his celebration turned to horror. The other two Tonys were lined up on his tail and closing fast. Almost within firing range, Moore felt the hairs raise on the back of his neck and dove as hard and fast as his seven-ton fighter would fall. He expected at any moment to feel the wrath of the enemy guns shredding his body.
In the distance Neel Kearby saw Moore's desperate dive and was amazed that the two Tonys were keeping pace. For all its diving inertia, the Thunderbolt couldn't shake the two Jap fighters intent on salvaging some honor from this day of battle. Kearby was extremely low on fuel and ammunition but it wouldn't stop him. Winging over, he put his own airplane into a desperate dive, coming up quickly on the last of the two Tonys in pursuit of his wingman.
Kearby was still 1,000 yards out, well beyond range for even the best aerial gunners, but he couldn't wait any longer--it was NOW or NEVER. He triggered his guns, feeling his downward motion braked by the recoil of the eight huge 50s, throwing him forward to strain against his shoulder harness. The guns on one wing chattered to a halt, out of ammunition and threatening to skew his forward momentum against the unequal force. Kearby fought the controls to stay in line with the enemy while the remaining guns nearly cut the Tony into two pieces. Diving through the exploding shrapnel he continued to fire, unsure if his bullets were striking the last attacker. Winging over, he came in from the 10 o'clock position for a final pass at it but the angle seemed wrong. Kearby was pretty certain he hit the Tony, thought he saw smoke trailing from what would be his seventh victory of the day. Whatever the case, whether falling in death or retreating in utter fear, the last fighter vanished and Kearby couldn't stick around to confirm his final kill. Slipping alongside his wingman, the two victorious pilots headed for home.
The fact that Lae was now in Allied hands may have been the only thing that got all four men home safely. With an average of 50 - 75 gallons of fuel remaining they would have had difficulty reaching Marilinan or Dobodura. After landing and refueling at Lae, the four officers flew up and over the Owen Stanley range to land at Port Moresby. Before leveling off to land, each man took the time to fly over and perform the traditional victory rolls. Captain Dunham made one roll, Captain Moore two rolls, and Lieutenant Colonel Neel Kearby an unprecedented SEVEN rolls.
After taxiing to a stop Kearby reported to General Kenney, who at the moment was engaged in a planning session with General MacArthur, who had flown in the previous day. After hearing Kearby's report of the mission Kenney advised MacArthur, "The record number of official victories in a single fight so far is five, credited to one of the Navy pilots, and he was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for the action. As soon as I can get witnesses' statements from the other three pilots and see the combat camera-gun pictures, if Kearby got five or more I want to recommend him for the same decoration."
General MacArthur advised Kenney that if Kearby's tally was verified, he would approve the recommendation and forward it to Washington. Both top commanders extended hearty congratulations to Kearby for his unprecedented, historic one-day combat action.
By the time of Neel Kearby's great air battle over Wewak, a total of sixteen Army airmen had earned Medals of Honor, eight of which had already been presented. All sixteen of these heroes however, had been BOMBER pilots or crewman (with the exception of Hamilton and Craw who received their awards for actions on the ground.)
By the fall of 1943 the U.S. Navy had fighter pilot heroes like Butch O'Hare and John Powers, both of whom were dead or missing. The Marine Corps had posthumously honored the heroism of fighter pilot Henry Elrod at Wake Island in the opening weeks of the war, as well as other fighter pilot heroes like Richard Fleming. The Cactus Air Force, flying out of Guadalcanal, had produced a number of Marine Corps Aces, several of whom earned Medals of Honor in the fall and winter of 1942. One of them, Joe Foss, had tied Eddie Rickenbacker's record twenty-six victories before being sent home to receive the Medal of Honor. In fact, during World War II only three Medal of Honor heroes had the distinction of appearing on the cover of Life magazine. Two of them were Marine fighter pilots who had battled at Guadalcanal in the early days of the war, John L. Smith and Joe Foss. (The other, in 1945, was Audie Murphy.)
The Army Air Force was certainly not without heroes of its own, from Buzz Wagner to Richard Bong, whose tally was up to seventeen. But for whatever reason, nearly two years into the war and with hundreds of Japanese planes overgrown in ruin on the jungle floor, or resting at the bottom of the ocean, not a single Army Air Force fighter pilot had yet earned the Medal of Honor.
Furthermore, though Kearby's unofficial tally of seven victories in a single battle was the greatest single-day effort in Fifth Air Force history, it was NOT unprecedented. Nearly a year earlier, on October 26, 1942, Navy pilot Stanley Swede Vejtasa had shot down seven Japanese planes in defense of the USS Hornet & Enterprise during the Battle of Santa Cruz. Two days before Kearby's historic air battle, one of his closest friends from his days stateside Major Bill Leverette, shot down seven enemy aircraft in a single battle in the Mediterranean. Neither of those two super-aces received the Medal of Honor.
From a historical standpoint, there are some who look at Neel Kearby and compare him to leading aces of his day like Bong and Lynch, or the air hero of the Day of Infamy George Welch. Some will quickly point out that Kearby's Medal of Honor nomination was a result of his close friendship with General Kenney. Certainly, from the day Kenney met the cool-as-ice fighter pilot from Texas and saw the hunger in his eyes, Kearby earned something akin to a favored son status with the Fifth Air Force Commander. That relationship blossomed, perhaps, because General Kenney saw in Kearby a ghost from his own past, the personality and abilities of a World War I pilot hadn't been afraid to set goals for himself, and then used his aerial prowess to make believers out of anyone who doubted him...until the day of his untimely death.
Whatever the motivation, Neel Kearby's action on October 11, though not unprecedented, was a new benchmark in the Fifth Air Force. Ultimately, only six of his victories over Wewak were confirmed. The seventh, if indeed it had been a legitimate shoot-down, had come late in the action when all four pilots were attempting to break free and head for home. The gun cameras confirmed Kearby's first six victories beyond doubt. The film however, ran out just as Neel's bullets began to strike his seventh target. Kenney recalled, "I wrathfully wanted to know why the photographic people hadn't loaded enough film, but they apologetically explained that this was the first time anyone had ever used that much (film.) They hadn't realized that enough film to record seven separate victories was necessary but, from now on, they would see that Kearby had enough for ten Nips."
The true value of Kearby's accomplishment was not reflected however, in the six victories he was officially credited with. Rather, it was reflected best in the after-action report written by 342d Fighter Squadron Intelligence Officer, First Lieutenant Bernhard Roth:
"....A total of 9 (enemy) fighters destroyed without a scratch on a single Thunderbolt demonstrates that this type of plane has come into its own in this theater, and that its terrific speed both in the dive and straightaway, its flashing aileron roll, and murderous firepower will henceforth strike terror into the hearts of the little yellow airmen.
"In conclusion, it should be noted that this plane flew well over 300 miles, fought for one hour, and returned, the whole mission consuming about three hours and one half. About 3500 rounds of ammunition were expended and over 100 feet of film taken."
On January 23, 1944, Colonel Neel Kearby received his Medal of Honor from General Douglas MacArthur in his office in Brisbane, Australia. Kenney recalled: "The General did the thing up right and so overwhelmed Neel that he wanted to go right back to New Guinea and knock down some more Japs to prove that he was as good as MacArthur had said he was."
On the day Colonel Kearby became the first Army Air Force fighter pilot to receive his country's highest honor in World War II, his score had increased to twenty-one victories. More importantly, in five months of combat Kearby's Thunderbolts had knocked down an incredible total of 164 enemy planes (confirmed,) and scores more that were probable but unverified victories.
The value of the once derided Thunderbolt would never again be questioned. It would emerge one of the greatest pursuit airplanes of World War II, legendary in is accomplishment and exceeded perhaps, only by the legend of the man who led them.....