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This Day in History: Louis Curdes's unusual Air Medal

On this day in 1945, USAAF Captain Louis E. Curdes shoots down an American C-47, forcing it to crash land in the ocean. Legend has it that he shot down a plane carrying the woman who would ultimately become his wife!

The story is mostly true, but I’m afraid it’s also bathed in a tad bit of myth. Curdes did shoot down a nurse that day, and he had been on at least one date with her. However, Curdes ultimately married someone else.

“My dad might have been dating a nurse on the plane that was shot down,” his daughter recently told a writer for Aviation History magazine, “but he went out on a blind date with my mom in Los Angeles. Love at first or second date!”

The story is still a good one. Curdes was one of the few World War II Aces to shoot down airplanes from all three Axis powers—then he shot down an American plane, to boot.

How many American aviators shoot down an American plane, then get an Air Medal for it?

On February 10, Curdes was circling over the Philippine Sea, keeping an eye on an American pilot who’d been forced to bail out of his plane. Suddenly, he saw a plane headed toward the Batan Islands. It appeared to be in trouble.

Curdes couldn’t then know it, but the plane had been caught in a storm. The pilot was lost and low on fuel. He was just looking for land—any land—where he could put down his plane. Not knowing any of this, Curdes had to decide whether the plane was really an American plane. Or could it be the Japanese posing as Americans?

He moved closer to inspect the situation and decided that it really was an American transport plane. If the plane was full of Americans, it certainly could not be allowed to land at the Batan Islands! Those islands were then occupied by the Japanese. Curdes knew all too well what the Japanese would do to American prisoners.

He couldn’t get the American pilot on the radio. How could he get the attention of the crew on that plane?

First, he dived in front of the C-47, then he sent a burst of machine gun fire in front of the C-47’s nose. Finally, desperate to prevent the C-47 from landing, he precisely and deliberately shot out both of its engines. The American plane was finally forced into an emergency landing in the water. Everyone aboard survived and climbed into life rafts.

Curdes dropped down a message: “For God’s sake, keep away from shore. Japs there.”

Fortunately, a rescue was already en route because of the pilot that Curdes had been guarding in the water. The people in the rafts weren’t stranded for too long before being rescued.

“They were all quite put out at the action of [Curdes],” USAAF General George Kenney later reported, “until the situation was explained to them, but from then on the kid was the greatest hero of the war as far as they were concerned.”

Curdes had already painted Nazi swastikas, an Italian insignia and a Japanese flag on the plane, noting that he’d downed those planes. An American flag would now be added to these insignias, “in memory of his latest exploit.”

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