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This Day in History: Thomas McGuire, America’s second-highest scoring Ace of World War II

On this Christmas Eve in 1944, one of America’s flying Aces prepares for action. During the course of only two days, Major Thomas B. McGuire, Jr. would score seven aerial victories against the Japanese. The feat would bring him within two victories of America’s Ace of Aces, Richard Bong.

McGuire would ultimately go down in the history books as America’s second-highest scoring Ace of World War II. He had taken down 38 enemy aircraft, compared to Bong’s 40.

The attacks that Christmas Day took place over Luzon in the Philippines. The Japanese had seized an American airbase there in December 1941. American bombers were now going after that airbase and others in the vicinity. McGuire’s assignment was to lead a squadron of P-38 Lightnings tasked with providing cover for the bombers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the American aircraft were attacked as they approached the area. Twenty Japanese Zeros had used the glare of the sun to their advantage, swooping in on the American formation from the east. By that point in the war, though, McGuire had 31 aerial victories under his belt. He was unrattled, and he swiftly took out three Japanese Zeros.

But then his guns jammed.

Perhaps some pilots would have dropped out of the fight at that juncture? Not McGuire. If he couldn’t use his guns as a defensive tool, then he’d use his plane.

“For the next half hour,” one of his biographers writes, “he did what a brave man would do: he used Pudgy V as his only weapon, maneuvering like a madman, dashing at the enemy fighters, chasing them, and drawing them away from the bombers that the 431st was there to protect.”

On one occasion, McGuire’s Medal citation notes, he even forced one of the enemy planes into his wingman’s line of fire.

McGuire was back again the next day—but with his guns fixed. Would the Japanese be back, too?

At first, the Japanese planes were nowhere to be seen. The American bombers released their ordnance and were just preparing to leave when the Japanese planes suddenly emerged from a cloud. One Zero pulled up behind a lone B-24, preparing to strike. McGuire was technically too far away to help, but he pushed forward anyway. The shot that he took at that Zero should have failed. Amazingly, it found its mark.

After that, McGuire was everywhere. His wingman had no hope of keeping up. “In rapid succession,” McGuire’s Medal citation notes, “he shot down 1 aircraft, parried the attack of 4 enemy fighters, 1 of which he shot down, single-handedly engaged 3 more Japanese, destroying 1, and then shot down still another.”

He’d taken risk after risk. Nevertheless, McGuire returned safely that day, having scored his 38th victory in aerial combat. He was just two shy of Richard Bong’s record—and, happily, he was mere weeks away from returning home to his wife of only two years.

If only the story could end on that happy note. Unfortunately, McGuire wouldn’t survive another incident a few weeks later on January 7. He attempted an extremely risky low-altitude maneuver in an attempt to save a fellow pilot.

The other pilot survived. McGuire did not. Yet another tale of selfless bravery from the Greatest Generation.

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