The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II

Khalid Elhassan - August 10, 2022

As a general proposition, you would expect a fighter ace – a pilot who downed at least five airplanes – to get officially credited only with shooting down enemy aircraft. Yet, in World War II, an American ace shot down an American airplane – not by accident but deliberately – and was officially credited with that shoot down. Below are thirty things about him and other heroic American airmen of WWII.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Louis Edward Curdes. Pinterest

30. The American Ace Who Downed an American Airplane, and Was Credited With the Victory

The above picture shows American ace Louis Edward Curdes in his P-51 Mustang. On the fuselage below the cockpit is a painted display of his victories, each marked with a flag or emblem that denotes the downed plane’s nationality. There are swastikas for shot down German airplanes, a fascist roundel for a victory over an Italian aircraft, and a Rising Sun for a downed Japanese airplane. However, there is an oddity that stands out: an American flag, denoting that one of Curdes’ victories was over an American airplane. How did that come about?

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
P-38 Lightnings. The Collings Foundation

Curdes was born in Indiana in 1919, and when America joined WWII, he was a third year engineering student at Purdue. He dropped out to join the US Army Air Forces, and was sent to the Mediterranean Theater in March, 1943. There, he was assigned to the Twelfth Air Force’s 95th Fighter Squadron, 82nd Fighter Group. Curfdes flew a P-38 Lightning, and on his first combat mission on April 29th, 1943, he shot down three German Messerschmitt Bf 109s in Tunisia. Three weeks later, he became an ace when he shot down two more over Sardinia. That June, he added an Italian fighter. He downed two more German 109s, but immediately after his eighth victory, he was himself shot down near Rome. Curdes was captured and thrown into an Italian POW camp, but as seen below, he did not stay there for long.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Ace Louis Edward Curdes in his P-51, July, 1945. Wikimedia

29. To Make Things Odder Yet, the Passengers of the Airplane Shot Down by This Ace Included His Future Wife

On September 8th, 1943, Italy surrendered, and Curdes’ Italian guards fled. Angered by their ally’s betrayal, the Germans invaded Italy, and Curdes had to evade recapture for eight months, before he finally made it to friendly lines in May, 1944. He was sent back to Indiana on home leave to recuperate, but Curdes sought another combat tour. So he was sent to the Pacific Theater, where he joined the 4th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Air Commando, a P-51 Mustang outfit. On February 7th, 1945, he shot down a Japanese reconnaissance airplane near Taiwan – which made this ace one of only three Americans in WWII to have shot down German, Italian, and Japanese planes. Three days later, Curdes led four P-51s in strafing some Japanese airfields in the Philippines. In the course of that operation, he noticed that an American Douglas C-47 transport was on a landing approach to a Japanese airfield.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
The marriage of Svetlana Valeria and Louis Edward Curdes. The News Sentinel, Fort Wayne

Curdes tried to radio a warning to the C-47, but was unsuccessful. He flew in front of it and maneuvered wildly, but its pilot did not understand, and continued on. Curdes figured that the transport’s occupants would be better off if he shot it down, than if they landed and were captured by the brutal Japanese. So he shot out both of its engines. That forced the pilot to abandon the ground landing, and ditch his airplane in the sea nearby. Luckily, nobody perished, and the C-47’s occupants evacuated in a lifeboat. The next day, Curdes was surprised to learn that the C-47’s passengers included a nurse, Svetlana Valeria, whom he had recently gone out with. He was officially credited with the downed C-47, which brought his WWII victory total to ten. A year later, in 1946, he married Svetlana. They stayed together until his death in 1995.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington. Monolith

28. A Black Sheep of an Ace

United Sates Marine Corps aviator and fighter ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, one of WWII’s more quixotic figures, is as fascinating today as he was then. His combat career taking on and taking down Japanese airmen began even before America was thrust into the war, when he left the Corps to join the famous “Flying Tigers” volunteer outfit in 1941. He rejoined the Marines in 1942 and flew in the South Pacific. There, he led the legendary Black Sheep Squadron, shot down 26 Japanese airplanes, earned a Medal of Honor plus a Navy Cross, and was en route to become America’s highest scoring ace. Then he was shot down and given up for dead, only to reemerge at war’s end from a Japanese POW camp, emaciated but alive and still full of pep.

Gregory Boyington, who grew up Gregory Hallenbeck, was born from Sioux and Irish stock in Idaho, in 1912. He took his first flight at age six, and was hooked. After he graduated high school in 1930, he went to the University of Washington, where he joined the Army ROTC. He also made the swimming and wrestling teams. He took various jobs in college, from parking cars, to working road construction and in logging and mining camps in summer, before he graduated with an aeronautical engineering degree in 1934. He got a job with Boeing, and got married soon thereafter.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Pappy Boyington. Pinterest

27. From Early in His Flying Career, this Ace Was His Own Worst Enemy

Gregory Boyington applied for flight training under a military reserve program, but discovered that married men were ineligible. A dramatic discovery salvaged his dreams of becoming a pilot, however. Until then, the future ace had assumed that the man who had raised him, Ellsworth Hallenbeck, was his father. A copy of his birth certificate revealed that his biological father was actually a Charles Boyington, who had divorced Gregory’s mother when he was a baby. There was no record of a Gregory Boyington being married, so he applied to a US Marine Corps flight training program under that name, and joined the Marine Reserves.

He became a Naval Aviator in 1937, and joined the active Marine Corps as a second lieutenant a few months later. Boyington was what could best be described as a “character” and a free thinker – traits that are not exactly a great fit for military service. In uniform, he discovered that his willingness to circumvent the rules and regulations, as well as his frequently outrageous conduct, got him in plenty of hot water with his superiors time after time. As he admitted years later, he was often “his own worst enemy“.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Flying Tigers airplanes, 1942. Pinterest

26. An American Ace Who Took on the Japanese Even Before Pearl Harbor

Promotions were slow in the pre-war years, and Boyington needed more than his first lieutenant’s salary to take care of his growing family. So he resigned his commission in 1941, and signed up as a mercenary with the American Volunteer Group. Better known as “The Flying Tigers”, they fought for China and protect the vital Burma Road from the Japanese. Per Boyington: “The AVG was paying $675 per month with a bonus of $500 for every confirmed scalp you knocked down. In 1941 that was the same as making $5,000 a month [in 1988 dollars]. And with an ex-wife, three kids, debts and my lifestyle, I really needed the work“.

The future ace was a hard-charging and hard living-warrior – traits shared with some other Flying Tigers. That rubbed their commander, Claire Chennault, the wrong way. As Boyington described it: “[Chennault] was less than pleased with some of our antics, such as shooting down the telephone lines with our .45s on the train to our billets, holding water buffalo races and rodeos in the street, or shooting up the chandeliers in a bar when they quit serving us. Some of the ground crew had been caught smuggling guns for profit, and that went over like a mortar round. Our radioman had even purchased a wife from her father, and we tried like hell to keep Chennault from finding out“.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Claire Chennault, left, and some of is Flying Tigers. Pinterest

25. An Ace Even Before WWII?

The rambunctious Gregory Boyington was in nearly constant trouble with his boss. However, that did not stop Claire Chennault from seeing his subordinate’s leadership potential, so he made him a flight leader. In his time with the Flying Tigers, Boyington shot down 2 Japanese airplanes, and was credited with destroying another 1.5 on the ground. He claimed to have actually shot down six or seven Japanese airplanes, which would have made him an ace even before America joined WWII. Boyington also survived a plane crash, from which he walked away with torn knees and a gashed head. He took a Japanese bullet to the shoulder on another occasion. A few months after America was thrust into WWII, Boyington broke his contract with Chennault. Despite the latter’s best efforts to keep him in the China-India-Burma Theater, Boyington returned home to rejoin the Marines.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
An original Black Sheep Squadron patch, on the flight jacket of VMF-214 pilot and Pappy Boyington friend Fred Losch. Veterans Collection

Promoted to Major, Boyington was deployed to Guadalcanal in early 1943 as executive officer of Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 122. In July, 1943, he was made commander of VMF-112, and in September, he was put in charge of Marine Fighter Squadron 214. It was with VMF-214 that Boyington became “Pappy” and his legend took off. The men initially wanted to name their squadron “Boyington’s Bastards”, but officials refused on grounds that civilian papers would never print it. So they settled on “Black Sheep” instead. For their insignia, they chose a shield with a black sheep surrounded by twelve stars. It was crowned with their airplane, the F4U Corsair, with a heraldic bar sinister to denote illegitimacy, or bastardy.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Pappy Boyington in Guadalcanal. Pinterest

24. This Black Sheep Joined the “Ace in a Day” Club

Gregory Boyington’s men initially nicknamed him “Gramps”, later changed to “Pappy” in accordance with a contemporary song, because at age 31, he was a decade older than most of his Marines. The Black Sheep were in combat for 84 days, in which time they destroyed or damaged 203 Japanese airplanes, including 97 confirmed aerial victories. They also strafed, bombed, and destroyed numerous enemy ground installations, and sank several supply ships and troop transports. For exceptional heroism in action, the squadron earned a Presidential Unit Citation.

As their commander, Boyington not only led the Black Sheep, but led the way in taking on and aggressively tangling with the Japanese. In one exploit against the Kahili airfield in Bougainville, where 60 enemy airplanes were based, Pappy led 24 fighters in circling the Japanese to goad them into coming out en masse. When they did, the Black Sheep shot down twenty enemy planes, without losing any of their own. In his first 32 days of combat, Boyington personally shot down fourteen enemy airplanes. On his best day, he downed five Japanese in a single mission. That qualified him for the rare “Ace in a Day” – somebody who shot down five or more enemy planes in a day – club. By December, 1943, his confirmed victory record had risen to 25.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Pappy Boyington preparing to take off in Guadalacanal, May 1st, 1943. US Marine Corps National Archives

23. This Ace Was Shot Down on the Same Day He Became America’s Highest Scoring Ace of WWII

Gregory Boyington led 48 fighters on a sweep over Rabaul on January 3rd, 1944. That day, he tied Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record, as well as WWII’s then-highest American record, by downing his 26th Japanese plane. Unfortunately, it proved to be his last, as he was shot down a few minutes later. A massive search failed to locate Pappy, and he was declared Missing in Action (MIA). Unbeknownst to his comrades, Boyington, had survived. Peppered with shrapnel to his groin, arms, and shoulders, and with a massive laceration to his scalp, a bullet in a calf, and a nearly severed left ear, he had managed to parachute from his flaming Corsair into Rabaul’s harbor.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Pappy Boyington maneuvering his F4U-1 Corsair in a dogfight against a Japanese Zero over Rabaul on December 27th, 1943. History Net

An injured Boyington was strafed in the water by four Zeroes, all of which fortunately missed, before he was picked by a Japanese submarine and made a POW. What followed were twenty months of brutal imprisonment. He was mistreated, beaten, and often went hungry or starved, with the result that he lost nearly seventy pounds. His ordeal finally came to an end on August 29th, 1945, when he was liberated, then taken back to the United States. There, he was greeted by surviving Black Sheep who threw him a party in a San Francisco hotel that was covered by Life magazine and appeared on its October 1st, 1945, issue.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Pappy Boyington, shortly after he received his Medal of Honor. Defense Visual Information Center

22. A Well-Earned Medal of Honor

Not long after his return to the US, Pappy Boyington was ordered to Washington, DC, to receive a Medal of Honor at the White House from President Truman. Its citation stated in relevant part that in the period September 12th, 1943, to January 3rd, 1944: “…Major Boyington struck at the enemy with daring and courageous persistence, leading his squadron into combat with devastating results to Japanese shipping, shore installations and aerial forces. Resolute in his efforts to inflict crippling damage on the enemy, Major BOYINGTON led a formation of twenty-four fighters over Kahili on October 17,

… persistently circling the airdrome where sixty hostile aircraft were grounded, boldly challenged the Japanese to send up planes. Under his brilliant command, our fighters shot down twenty enemy craft in the ensuing action without the loss of a single ship. A superb airman and determined fighter against overwhelming odds, Major BOYINGTON personally destroyed 26 of the many Japanese planes shot down by his squadron and by his forceful leadership developed the combat readiness in his command which was a distinctive factor in the Allied aerial achievements in this vitally strategic area“.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Pappy Boyington and one of his four wives. Los Angeles Public Library

21. Alcohol Marred the Life of This Hard-Charging Ace

After his Medal of Honor award, Gregory Boyington was sent on a public relations tour to sell bonds. By all accounts, the Marine ace partied hard while he was at it. The hard-living Boyington was notorious for being a heavy drinker. Alcoholism caused him many problems in his professional and private lives, and contributed to multiple divorces – he got married four times. The booze, marital difficulties, heavy indebtedness, and a reputation for being a troublemaker precluded a career in the Marine Corps after the war.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Robert Conrad as Pappy Boyington in ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. Flickr

Accordingly, Boyington retired from the USMC on August 1st, 1947, with the rank of Colonel. He then worked a variety of civilian gigs, including refereeing and participating in professional wrestling matches. He also wrote an autobiography, Baa Baa Black Sheep, which was published in 1958, plus a novel about the Flying Tigers. Baa Baa Black Sheep was made into an NBC series, albeit a significantly fictionalized one, that aired for two seasons from 1976 to 1978. In it, Boyington was portrayed by actor Robert Conrad.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Pappy Boyington in later years. Kurt Gippert

20. An Ace in His Twilight Years

Pappy Boyington participated in a Black Sheep Squadron reunion in 1981, hosted by the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The event was attended by eighteen surviving VMF-214 veterans, and its highlights included the unveiling of a fully restored F4U-1 Corsair that their commander autographed with a marker pen on a landing well. Boyington got into the cockpit, and confirmed that it had been accurately restored. It hangs today from the ceiling of the museum’s Dulles Airport Annex, and Boyington’s signature is visible from the ground.

The flying, the Japanese, the copious booze consumption, and years of heavy smoking did not keep Boyington from reaching his biblical three score and ten years. However, the tobacco habit caught up with the Marine ace eventually, and he died of lung cancer in 1988, at age 77. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, with the full military honors due a Medal of Honor recipient, in a grave close to that of boxer Joe Louis. As a friend remarked at the funeral when he noticed the proximity to the pugilistic legend’s headstone: “Ol’ Pappy wouldn’t have to go far to find a good fight“.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
P-51 Mustangs. Spitfire Emporium

19. America’s Best Fighter of WWII

The North American P-51 Mustang was perhaps the only airplane to seriously rival the Spitfire for the title of most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing fighter of the Second World War. When it came to performance, however, the Mustang had no serious rival for the title of best fighter of that conflict. It embodied the pinnacle of propeller driven fighter technology, and proved itself a credible match against all Axis opponents in all of the war’s theaters, even the revolutionary Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.

The Mustang was initially designed for the RAF. The plane that was manufactured in accordance with the British buyers’ specifications, and delivered in October of 1941, was mediocre. Equipped with an underpowered engine, those early Mustangs were poor competition for German fighters at high altitude. As such, the RAF’s Fighter Command saw no use for the plane, and it was relegated to tactical reconnaissance and ground attack duties. In 1943, the US Eighth Air Force joined the bombing campaign against Germany and suffered horrendous losses during raids deep into Reich territory beyond the range of fighter escorts. That was when the Mustang got a second look.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
An early model P-51 with the RAF, before it got its Rolls Royce Merlin engine. Imperial War Museums

18. An Unpromising Start

The front line American fighters at the time, the P-38s and P-47s, had shortcomings as bomber escorts. Biggest one was that they lacked sufficient range to accompany the bombers all the way to targets deep into Germany. After evaluation, it was determined that the P-51 Mustang might solve that problem. If modified to carry additional fuel internally and fitted with external fuel tanks, it would have enough range to escort the bombers anywhere in Europe. That fixed half of the problem: transforming the Mustang into a fighter that could accompany American bombers all the way to targets deep inside Germany.

Fixing the other half of the problem – improving the Mustang’s performance so it could beat back German fighters and actually protect the bombers it would now escort – transformed the Mustang into a legend. What had kept the Mustang mediocre was a mediocre engine that performed poorly at high altitudes. Equipped with that stock engine, the initial Mustangs had a top speed of 390 miles per hour, and an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet. If they flew any higher, their performance suffered. Then, as seen below, a solution was found.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
A P-51 and a flaming Fw 190. War Thunder

17. A Brainstorm That Transformed an OK Fighter Into the Greatest One

Eventually, a British test pilot had the bright idea of replacing the P-51’s stock engine with the Rolls Royce engine used in the Spitfire IX. The results were immediate and dramatic. The new engine allowed the Mustang to realize its potential, and transformed it from a mediocrity to the war’s best fighter. From a 390 mph top speed, the Rolls Royce Mustang zoomed to 440 mph, and later models reached 490 mph. From an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet, the improved Mustang soared to 42,000 feet. The test results were passed on to the Americans, and converted Mustangs, equipped with the Rolls Royce engine and now designated the P-51B, began to roll out of factories in June, 1943.

By late 1943, P-51s were in place and ready for action in Europe. When they entered action in 1944, they broke the Luftwaffe’s back. German Messerschmitt Bf 109s had good engines that performed well at the high altitudes in which the bombers flew. But to actually down the rugged B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, the 109s needed to be fitted with heavy armaments. The problem was that the addition of heavy armaments to the Bf 109s’ light airframe negatively impacted their performance. It made them vulnerable to the bombers’ escorting P-51s, unencumbered by heavy armaments, and armed and optimized instead for the task of ending fighters.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
P-51 Mustangs in Europe. WW2 Database

16. An Aggressive Change in Tactics That Created Many an American Ace Over German Skies

German Focke-Wulf Fw 190s had it even worse than the Bf 109s when they tried to penetrate the protective screen of P-51s in order to get at the bombers. While the 109s at least had engines that were suited for high altitude dog fighting, the Fw 190s did not have even that. Fw 190 radial engines were no match for the Mustangs’ Rolls Royce engines at high altitudes. That combined with the dilemma of needing heavy armaments in order to shoot down heavy bombers, even as those heavy armaments reduced their ability to take on enemy fighters not similarly encumbered. It placed the Fw 190s found themselves at a severe disadvantage against the P-51s. After months of heavy losses to the Mustangs, and unsustainable attrition that bled the German fighter arm white, the Luftwaffe effectively ceded the skies over Germany to the P-51 escorted bombers.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Boeing B-17G Flying Fortresses of the 381st Bomb Group, escorted by a P-51B of the 354th Fighter Squadron in 1944. WW2 Database

German fighters eventually began to shadow bomber formations, without attacking them. Instead, they pounced on stragglers with mechanical malfunctions or damaged by flak. The P-51s begrudged them even that, and would not allow the once proud Luftwaffe to skulk and scavenge in peace. If German fighters would not come up to fight them, then they would go down to find and fight the German fighters. When Jimmy Doolittle, of Tokyo Raid fame, was appointed to command the Eighth Air Force, he was not content with simply protecting the bombers. Instead, he sought to achieve aerial supremacy over German skies. To do that, he changed the orders that had required escorting fighters to stick with the bombers at all times, and freed them to sweep far ahead of the formations to engage any Germans they could find. Seemingly overnight, many an American P-51 ace was created.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
P-51 Mustangs of the 375th Fighter Squadron, Eighth Air Force, in 1944. Library of Congress

15. The American Fighter That Sealed the Luftwaffe’s Coffin

Once American bombers hit their targets and began their return trip, their P-51 escorts were free to leave the formations and “hit the deck” on their way back home. They descended from their high altitudes and tangled with any planes they came across. They strafed German airfields, attacked trains or road traffic, engaged any targets of opportunity they spotted, and otherwise provoked and dared the Luftwaffe to come out and do something about it. In the runup to the D-Day landings, some P-51 groups were released from bomber escort duties altogether, and unleashed on German airfields instead. Such aggressive tactics finally crippled the Luftwaffe. The P-51s proved such a success, and were such a marked improvement over the P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts, that by the end of 1944, fourteen out of the Eighth Air Force’s fifteen fighter groups had switched from those fighters to P-51s.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
A P-51 Mustang. Wikimedia

Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Mustangs came from the Luftwaffe’s chief, Hermann Goering. He reportedly said “I knew the jig was up” when he saw P-51s over Berlin. Even the arrival of futuristic German airplanes late in the war failed to wrest aerial supremacy from the P-51s. The most formidable of those planes, the Messerschmitt Me 262, was kept in check by a shortage of both fuel and experienced pilots. Also by the expedients of attacking their airfields and strafing them on the ground, or keeping fighter air patrols near their airfields to catch them at their most vulnerable as they took off or landed.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Tuskegee Airmen. History Network

14. America’s WWII Black Airmen

African Americans played a significant role in America’s military history. They did so despite the limited opportunities, adversity, and open hostility that they frequently had to contend with when they tried to serve their country. Particularly from higher ups who believed that blacks were racially unsuited for leadership or combat duty. Accordingly, they designed and implemented policies to deny them leadership opportunities and training. An example was the widespread conviction in American military aviation circles, before and throughout WWII, that blacks were manifestly unsuited for aerial combat.

Notwithstanding, African American pilots were trained and organized into racially segregated all-black squadrons that were sent to serve overseas. They came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen, after their training base in Tuskegee, Alabama. They flew P-40 Warhawks, Bell P-39 Airacobras, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, and finally, the planes with which they became most closely associated, P-51 Mustangs. The black airmen put up impressive numbers during the conflict, and by the time the war was over, they had put to rest the myth that aviation was too challenging for African Americans.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
The first class of Tuskegee Airmen in 1941. Wikimedia

13. Segregation in the US Armed Forces Led to Calls for the Creation of an All-Black Fighter Unit

In the First World War, African Americans tried to fly or serve as aerial observers in the US military, but were rejected. Their numbers included Eugene Bullard, a black pilot who flew for the French air force during the war, because his own country’s military aviation would not have him. Blacks continued to be barred from service in US military aviation until pressure and successful lobbying by civil rights groups got Congress to pass a bill in 1939 to train black flyers.

The War Department and the military aviation establishment dragged their feet and slow walked the implementation of the legislation. In 1941, they finally gave in to pressure and created the 99th Pursuit Squadron. In accordance with the military’s racial segregation policies, the 99th was an all-black flying outfit. The unit had 47 officers and 429 men, and training began in Tuskegee, Alabama, in July of 1941. The first class of five black fighter pilots graduated in March, 1942. They included Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the first black officer to solo an Army Air Corps plane. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel that July, and placed in command of the 99th.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Tuskegee Airmen in P-40 Warhawks

12. American Commanders Were Lukewarm to the Idea of Black Pilots

Even as the Tuskegee training pipeline began to pump out black aviators, most were left to cool their heels. The new black pilots were given no assignments, as plans to place them into command slots were slow walked or resisted by higher ups. The US Army Air Forces’ commanding general, Henry “Hap” Arnold, was among those who were lukewarm about the placement of black officers in operational slots. One of his stated objections was that: “Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men creating an impossible social situation“.

It took even more public pressure from civil rights groups and the black press, plus the personal intercession of the president, before the military finally relented, and declared the 99th Pursuit Squadron combat ready in April, 1943. It was shipped to North Africa, where it flew P-40 Warhawks as operational fighters. Its first combat assignment was to participate in Operation Corkscrew, the air assault on the Italian island of Pantelleria, to clear the way for the upcoming Allied invasion of Sicily.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
An Office of War Information poster wishing the Tuskegee Airmen good luck on their first combat mission. National Archives

11. America’s Black Pilots Finally Saw Combat in the Mediterranean Theater

Flying out of Tunis, the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron carried out its first combat mission on June 2nd, 1943, and Operation Corkscrew turned out to be an auspicious start for the Tuskegee Airmen. Pantelleria, with a garrison of about 11,000 Italians and 100 Germans, surrendered on June 11th – the first time in history that a sizeable ground force surrendered because of aerial attacks. However, the 99th was unfairly criticized by some white aviators. They included the unit’s own commander, who accused the black pilots of “failure to … display aggressiveness and daring for combat“, and called for the unit’s disbandment. The 99th was cleared by an Army Air Forces investigation, which revealed that the unit had performed just as well or better than other squadrons flying P-40s. Rather than get disbanded, the close look at the black flyers’ performance earned their squadron a Distinguished Unit Citation.

After Operation Corkscrew, the 99th flew in support of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in July, 1943. Once airfields were secured in Sicily, the black flyers relocated from North Africa to that island, then flew in support of the Allied invasion of Italy that September. The 99th was then tasked with providing close air support to the US 5th Army during some of its major operations. They included the capture of Foggia and its vital airfields, and the amphibious Anzio landings. Attached to the 79th Fighter Group, the black flyers of the 99th saw significant action as one of eight fighter squadrons that defended the Anzio beachhead from German aerial attacks.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Tuskegee Airmen at an American airbase after a mission in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. Wikimedia

10. The Tuskegee Airmen in Italy

On January 27th to 28th, 1944, the eight squadrons defending Anzio collectively shot down 32 German airplanes. The 99th claimed the highest score among them, with 13 victories. A week later, the 99th was assigned to the Twelfth Air Force and tasked with harbor protection, convoy escort, and armed reconnaissance missions. The 99th also provided close air support to the French and Polish armies during their assault on Monte Cassino in May, 1944. The unit distinguished itself in the latter engagement. It surprised and devastated German infantry massing for a counterattack, then bombed and strafed a nearby strongpoint, forcing its surrender to French colonial troops. That performance earned the 99th its second Distinguished Unit Citation.

In the meantime, the airbase in Tuskegee pumped out more black aviators. By February, 1944, there were three all-black fighter squadrons ready and waiting in the US: the 100th, 301st, and 302nd. The units were shipped to North Africa, where they were combined into the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. The new group with its novice squadrons was then sent to Italy, where it was joined by the now-veteran 99th Pursuit Squadron in June, 1944. The Tuskegee Airmen initially flew P-40s, then were switched to Bell P-39 Airacobras in March , 1944, and upgraded to P-47 Thunderbolts in June. In July, 1944, they were finally equipped with the airplane with which they became most associated: the P-51 Mustang. Operating out of Ramitelli Airfield in the city of Campomarino on the Adriatic coast, the 332nd Fighter Group was tasked with escorting the Fifteenth Air Force’s heavy bombers.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who led the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII, in front of a P-47 Thunderbolt. Flickr

9. The “Red Tails” Distinguish Themselves Over Berlin

For the rest of the war, the Tuskegee airmen accompanied the Fifteenth Air Force’s bombers on strategic raids. The black flyers flew cover on missions that targeted oil refineries, marshalling yards, factories, and airfields. The assignments took them to Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany, and Poland. The 332nd earned an impressive combat record while escorting the heavy bombers, whose crews referred to the black flyers as “Red Tails” or “Red Tail Angels” because of the distinctive red paint the unit used on its airplanes’ tails. They earned another nickname from their opponents: “Schwarze Vogelmenschen“, or “Black Birdmen”.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s most famous mission, in which they went up against German Me 262 fighter jets, came on March 24th, 1945. That day, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis led 43 Mustangs of 332nd Fighter Group as bomber escorts for Fifteenth Air Force B-17s, who flew a 1600 mile round trip to raid a tank factory in Berlin. The Luftwaffe put up stiff resistance, and sent up clouds of Fw 190s, Me 163 Komet rocket fighters, plus 25 Me 262 jet fighters. Tuskegee Airmen Roscoe Brown, Charles Brantley, and Earl Lane, all managed to shoot down Luftwaffe jets over Berlin that day. The 332nd Fighter Group earned another Distinguished Unit Citations for its feats on that mission.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
A WWII poster, featuring a Tuskegee Airman. Wikimedia

8. A Distinguished Combat Record That Proved the Doubters Wrong

In total, the all-black squadrons flew 1578 combat missions, including 179 bomber escort missions, and put up some pretty good statistics while they were at it. They lost bombers on only seven missions, for a total of 27 airplanes, compared to an average loss of 46 bombers for other Fifteenth Air Force P-51 fighter groups. They shot down 112 enemy airplanes, destroyed another 150 on the ground, and damaged 148 more. On ground attack runs, they destroyed 600 rail cars, plus 350 trucks and motor vehicles. At sea, they destroyed 40 boats and barges, plus a German torpedo boat.

Collectively, the Tuskegee Airmen earned three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC). The first of them went to the 99th Pursuit Squadron for its performance in the aerial assault on Pantelleria in June of 1943. The 99th earned another DUC in May of 1944, for actions at Monte Cassino. The third Distinguished Unit Citation went to the 332nd Fighter Group (including the 99th Pursuit Squadron plus two other black squadrons, the 100th and 301st) for action over Berlin in March of 1945.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
A red-tailed P-51 flown by Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group. Wikimedia

7. The Tuskegee Airmen Turned Out to be Some of America’s Best Fighter Pilots

Despite the predictions of many that blacks were unsuited to fly combat, the Tuskegee Airmen turned out to be some of the best fighter pilots in the US Army Air Forces. During WWII, Tuskegee Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and 8 Purple Hearts. Their accomplishments came at a price. Nearly a thousand pilots were trained at Tuskegee, of whom 355 were deployed overseas. 68 of them perished in combat or accidents related thereto, another 12 didn’t make it through training and on non-combat missions, and 32 were taken as prisoners of war.

The numbers should have spoken for themselves. Predictably, though, they did little to silence racists who continued to attack the black airmen. Nonetheless, after the US military was finally desegregated in 1948, the veteran black pilots blossomed in the newly formed United States Air Force, and found themselves in high demand. The 332nd Fighter Group was deactivated in 1949, as part of the Air Force’s plan to achieve racial integration. As a last hurrah, shortly before deactivation, Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group won first place in the US Annual Gunnery Meet – a competition that included shooting aerial targets, strafing ground targets, and dropping bombs.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Bruce Carr took off on a mission in an American P-51, and returned in a German Fw 190. Aviation Geek Club

6. The Ace Who Went Out on a Mission in an American Fighter, and Returned in a German One

WWII has no shortage of feats of heroism, derring-do, and intrepidity. However, few feats of heroic derring-do in that or any other conflict could match the intrepid escape of US Army Air Forces Second Lieutenant Bruce Ward Carr (1924 – 1998) from the Nazis’ clutches. An ace, Carr holds the distinction of being the only USAAF to leave on a combat mission in an American plane, and return to base in a German one. It happened in November, 1944, when Carr flew a strafing mission in P-51 fighter, but was shot down over enemy territory. He evaded capture, then stole an Fw 190 fighter from a German airfield and flew it back home.

Bruce Carr learned to fly in 1939, when he was only fifteen-years-old. In 1942, at age eighteen, he joined the USAAF’s Flying Cadet Training Program. He had the good fortune to get assigned to the same flight instructor who had taught him how to fly in 1939. Carr’s prior experience in the cockpit got him sent to Spence Airfield in Georgia, for an accelerated pilot training program in P-40 Warhawk fighters. After 240 hours in the air, he graduated as a flight officer in late August, 1943, and was sent for more specialized training.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
A P-51 making a low level pass on a German airplane. Art Station

5. A Pilot Who Scared an Enemy to Death

After he graduated from Spence Airfield, Bruce Carr spent two months on more advanced training. It included qualifying in early models of the North American P-51 Mustang fighter, and its ground attack and dive-bombing variant, the A-36 Apache. He was sent to England in early 1944, and assigned to the 380th Fighter Squadron, 363rd Fighter Group, Ninth Air Force. Until then, Carr had never flown about 10,000 feet. When he took his P-51 to 30,000 feet, he was so impressed by its handling that he named his airplane “Angel’s Playmate“.

Carr notched his squadron’s first victory on March 8th, 1944, when he pursued a Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Berlin, and chased it to near-ground-level while he fired his guns. Only a single bullet hit the enemy fighter, but its pilot panicked. Unable to escape in his 109 from Carr’s P-51, the Luftwaffe airman tried to escape by abandoning his plane and parachuting to the ground. Unfortunately for the German, he jumped too close to the ground for his parachute to fully open.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Bruce Carr’s P-51, Angel’s Playmate. We the Armed

4. A Fresh Start With a New Squadron Was What This Fighter Pilot Needed to Become an Ace

Unfortunately for Bruce Carr, higher ups declined to give him credit for the downed Bf 109, arguing that it had crashed, rather than been shot down. He argued that his aggressive actions and pursuit had caused the crash. As he saw it, he had literally scared the enemy pilot to death, and caused him to kill himself. Carr was not only denied credit for his first victory, he was also labeled “overaggressive” by his superiors. So he was transferred to 353rd Squadron, 354th Fighter Group. It was his old outfit’s loss. In his new unit, Carr became not only an ace, but one of the 354th Fighter Group’s top aces. His rise to ace began on June 14th, 1944, when he was credited with a probable extermination of a Bf 109 over Normandy, France.

Three days later, on the 17th, he shared a victory, when he helped another pilot down an Fw 190. That August, Carr was commissioned a second lieutenant. On September 12th, 1944, Second Lieutenant Bruce Carr’s squadron strafed Ju-88 bombers on a German airfield. On the way back, his flight spotted more than thirty Fw 190s two thousand feet below them. The Americans pounced, and in just a few minutes, Carr personally shot down three enemy fighters – an aerial hat trick. He then escorted a fellow American pilot, whose airplane was badly damaged, back to base. His exploits that day earned Carr a Silver Star, America’s third-highest decoration for valor in combat.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
An Fw 190D-9 cockpit. National Museum of the United States Air Force

3. An Ace Shot Down Deep in Enemy Territory

Bruce Carr became an ace on October 29th, 1944, when he shot down two more Bf 109s over Germany. Four days later, as he led his flight on a strafing run over a German airfield in Czechoslovakia, Carr’s P-51, Angel’s Playmate, was hit by antiaircraft fire. He bailed out from his fatally damaged plane, and parachuted safely to earth. Carr had managed to escape death in the air. Now he set out to escape Germans on the ground. Stranded deep in enemy territory, hundreds of miles from friendly lines, Carr evaded capture for several days. Eventually, cold, wet, exhausted, and starving, he decided to surrender. Aware that German airmen treated enemy airmen better than other POWs, Carr headed to a Luftwaffe airfield he had spotted.

He made it to the surrounding fence, and decided to hide in adjacent woods that night, then walk up to the front gate and surrender the following morning. Then Carr saw something that made him change his mind: German ground-crew fueling and performing maintenance on an Fw 190 near the edge of the runway, close to his hiding spot. When they were done, the Germans tightened the panels back on the plane and left, leaving it ready for combat the next day. That night, Carr worked up the nerve to sneak up to the enemy fighter, and climbed into its cockpit. He fought off sleep until dawn’s early light allowed him to inspect the instruments. Everything was labeled in German, but there were enough similarities between the German and American cockpits for Carr to guesstimate what did what.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
That Fw 190 that Bruce Carr returned to base in. Large Scale Planes

2. A Harrowing Escape

Bruce Carr found the Fw 190’s starter lever, spent half an hour building up his courage, then pulled it. Nothing happened. German starters worked the other way around. He eventually pushed it forward, and the fighter’s BMW motor roared to life. Carr would not risk his escape by wasting any time taxing to and lining up on the runway. Pouring on full throttle, the American ace raced across a corner of the airfield, between two airplane hangars, then over the heads of sleepy and befuddled Germans.

When he reached Allied territory, ground troops opened fire on Carr’s Fw 190. To avoid friendly fire, he flew just above treetop level at 350 mph. After flying about 200 miles, he reached his airfield. Unable to deploy the landing gear or communicate via radio, Carr made a belly landing before his escape was ruined by his own airfield’s defenses blasting him out of the sky. Military police surrounded the crashed Fw 190, and refused to accept Carr’s word that he was American. It was finally sorted out when the group commander arrived, and identified his missing pilot. Carr is the only Allied pilot to fly off in a P-51, and return in an Fw 190.

The Most Heroic Airmen of World War II
Bruce Carr’s P-51 at the end of WWII. PME

1. After His Escape, Bruce Carr Joined the “Ace in a Day” Club

Bruce Carr was promoted to first lieutenant, and given a well-deserved leave. However, his wartime exploits were not over. On April 2nd, 1945, First Lieutenant Carr led three other American fighters on a reconnaissance mission, when they spotted sixty German fighters above them. Despite the 15:1 odds against his flight, the fighter ace immediately led an attack. Within minutes, Carr and his companions had downed fifteen Germans. Carr personally downed two Fw 190s, three Bf 109s, and damaged a sixth plane. His downing of five airplanes on that occasion made Carr the European Theater of Operations’ last “Ace in a Day”.

It also earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second highest award for valor. By war’s end, Carr had flown 172 combat missions, scored fifteen confirmed air-to-air victories, several more unconfirmed victories, and numerous ground victories. He flew another 57 combat missions in the Korean War, and 286 more in Vietnam, earning a Legion of Merit and Three Distinguished Flying Crosses. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1973, died of prostate cancer in 1998, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Air Force Magazine, February 1st, 1995 – Valor: Thanks, Luftwaffe

Aviation Geek Club – The Story of Bruce Carr, the P-51D Pilot Who Left on a Mission Flying a Mustang and Returned to Base Flying a Luftwaffe FW190

Aviation History Magazine, May, 2001 – WWII Ace Pappy Boyington Recalls War, Prison and Flying

Baron, Scott – Valor of Many Stripes: Remarkable Americans in World War II (2019)

Birch, David – Rolls Royce and the Mustang (1987)

Boyington, Gregory – Baa Baa Black Sheep (1958)

Darling, Kev – Combat Legend: P-51 Mustang (2005)

Detroit Free Press, May 18th, 2018 – Tuskegee Airman Honored 73 Years After Being Lynched in Austria

Encyclopedia Britannica – Tuskegee Airmen

Fortitudine, Bulletin of the Marine Corps Historical Program, Volume 35, Number 1, 2010 – Boyington and Combat Leadership

Gamble, Bruce – The Black Sheep: The Definitive Account of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 in World War II (1998)

Gamble, Bruce – Black Sheep One: The Life of Greggory ‘Pappy’ Boyington (2000)

History Collection – Underappreciated Heroes From History

History Net – Facts & Information About the Tuskegee Airmen

Moye, J. Todd – Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (2010)

Museum of Flight – Digital Collections: Louis E. Curdes Oral Interview

Pace, Steve – Mustang: Thoroughbred Stallion of the Air (2012)

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum – Black Wings: African American Pioneer Aviators

Together We Served – Carr, Bruce W. (DSC), Colonel

Tuskegee Airmen Inc. – Tuskegee Airmen History

US Air Force Historical Division Research Studies Institute, Historical Study No. 136 – Development of the Long Range Escort Fighter

War History Online – The American WWII Ace Who Shot Down 7 German, 1 Italian, 1 Japanese, and 1 American Plane