US Navy pilot Alexander Vraciu, who once shot down six enemy aircraft in just eight minutes, died last week at age 96.
Vraciu, nominated for the Medal of Honor for his actions during First Battle of the Philippine Sea, also known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” would go on to shoot down 19 Japanese aircraft, and destroy 21 more on the ground during World War II.
In December 1944 he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire during a December mission over the Philippines. Vraciu was rescued by Filipino resistance fighters and spent six weeks with guerrillas before making his way back to US forces.
Vraciu, who ended World War II as the fourth-highest ranking Navy ace, spent 24 years in all in the Navy. A graduate of DePauw University, he would go on to raise five children with his wife Kathryn.
Vraciu, commissioned a Naval Reserve ensign in the summer of 1942, joined Fighting Squadron Six under Lieutenant Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare, the navy’s first ace of World War II. The move proved propitious as O’Hare made Vraciu his wingman and gave him invaluable advice regarding air combat.
The squadron entered combat in October 1943, flying from USS Independence.
Vraciu registered his first victory during a strike against Wake Island on Oct. 10, 1943. He followed a Japanese Zero to Wake Island, where it landed. Vraciu strafed the fighter plane on the ground, then spotted a G4M Betty bomber and shot it down.
When the squadron moved to USS Intrepid, Vraciu saw his totals began to grow: he shot down three Betties on Jan. 29, 1944, and four fighters over Truk Atoll on Feb. 17.
Vraciu’s most successful day as an aviator occurred on June 19, 1944, during the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. He intercepted a formation of Japanese dive bombers, destroying half a dozen in just eight minutes.
After Vraciu landed, ordnancemen discovered that he had used only 360 bullets. That meant that, on average, each of the six kills had followed a burst less than five seconds long.
The next day, escorting bombers in an attack on the Japanese Mobile Fleet, Vraciu downed his 19th and final enemy plane.
For his actions at the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, Vraciu was nominated for the Medal of Honor. He would instead receive the Navy Cross.
Vraciu, a native of Chicago, retired from the Navy in 1964 and entered the banking profession. He spent his last 50-plus years in California.
(Top: Photo of US Navy ace Alexander Vraciu following his 19th and final air victory, in the late stages of World War II.)