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This Day in History: Neel Kearby, WWII Ace

On this day in 1911, a hero is born. Neel E. Kearby would go on to become one of the most decorated pilots in World War II. He achieved 22 kills during his time in combat, the most of any Thunderbolt pilot in the Pacific.


He received the Medal of Honor during the war, but he was known for so much more: Kearby turned the P-47 Thunderbolt into a weapon of war that the Japanese could not ignore.

“Since the P-47 could not maneuver with the enemy at low altitude,” the National Museum of the United States Air Force explains, “Kearby would lead his group into hostile territory at high altitude where the Thunderbolt’s turbosupercharged engine gave it an advantage. Upon sighting the enemy below, Kearby and his pilots made high-speed attacks exploiting the P-47s remarkable diving ability. The energy built up in the dive allowed them to quickly climb back up to altitude for another diving pass.”


The Japanese came to fear these attacks. The big guns on the Thunderbolt “literally blew their lightly built aircraft out of the sky,” as the Air Force Museum concludes.


Kearby’s Medal action came on October 11, 1943, as he led a four-plane reconnaissance patrol. Suddenly, he spotted a single Japanese fighter scouting below him. He was at a high altitude and dove towards the fighter, taking it out.


It was just the beginning. Kearby’s patrol soon discovered a formation of 36 enemy fighters escorting a dozen bombers. The force appeared to be preparing for a raid on Allied positions.


Kearby’s patrol was badly outnumbered, and he was running low on fuel. But he had the element of surprise, and he intended to use it.


He ordered his men to attack.


The American planes dove from their high altitude, headed straight for the enemy. Kearby took out three planes on his first pass while two other pilots, Bill Dunham and John Moore, each got one kill. Kearby was in the midst of ordering his men to return to base when he saw that the last pilot, Raymond Gallagher, was in trouble.


Two Japanese fighters were pursuing Gallagher. Kearby was still low on fuel, but he doggedly flew forward anyway, taking out both of the enemy.


Dunham and Moore later said that they saw another dogfight at this juncture: Kearby was fighting six Kawanishi Ki-61s. The pilots thought Kearby got two more kills during this dogfight, but Kearby’s gun camera was out of film, so those two kills could not be confirmed.


The Americans turned for an emergency landing in Lae, landing with less than 75 gallons of fuel in all four planes.


Kearby received the Medal of Honor from General Douglas MacArthur just a few short months later. He was then tied with Dick Bong as the highest-scoring ace in the Army Air Forces.


Unfortunately, Kearby’s fearless rush into battle would catch up with him. On March 5, 1944, he was again on patrol when he ran into 15 Japanese planes. He did not survive this last action.


“[T]he drive to excel that made Kearby a leading ace of World War II,” Colonel John L. Frisbee concludes, “was also his undoing. . . . He lived on the razor’s edge, but those months of eagerly sought combat left for the men who followed a spirit and a tradition that made victory in the Pacific inevitable.”

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