Born in East Chicago, Indiana, Alexander Vraciu became the Navy's fourth ranking ace
during World War II by shooting down 19 Japanese aircraft and destroying 21 more on the
ground. After graduation from DePauw University in 1941, he entered naval flight training
and earned his wings in August 1942. His first combat assignment was flying Grumman F6F
Hellcats on the wing of Medal of Honor recipient "Butch" O'Hare, commanding
officer of Fighter Squadron 6 (VF-6). Flying from the USS Independence, he shot
down his first enemy aircraft, a Zero fighter, at Wake Island in October 1943. His second,
a Betty bomber, was downed at Tarawa.
On 29 January 1944, Vraciu became an ace when he
downed three more Bettys over Kwajalein. He brought his total aerial victories to nine by
downing four more Zeroes on 16 February 1944 during Task Force 58's first strike on
heavily fortified Truk atoll. When VF-6 rotated home, Vraciu thought there was still a job
to be done and requested continued combat duty. The Navy assigned him to VF-16 aboard USS
Lexington. Over the next 5 months, he achieved 10 more aerial victories over
Truk, Saipan, and the Marianas. Six of his aerial victories came on a single mission on 19
June 1944, when he shot down six Judy dive-bombers in eight minutes in the
"Marianas Turkey Shoot."
Amazingly, he used only 360 of the 2,400 rounds of ammunition
aboard his F6F Hellcat during the melee and directly contributed to the breaking
up of a concentrated enemy attack on the American task force. On another mission, he also
sank an enemy merchant ship by scoring a direct hit to its stern with a skipped bomb. With
19 victories to his credit, Vraciu remained the top Navy ace for three months. Sent home
for war bond tours, Vraciu hurriedly returned to the Pacific theater after several months
and was assigned to VF-20 aboard the USS Lexington. However, on his second combat
sortie in December 1944, he was shot down by antiaircraft fire over the Philippines only
to picked up by friendly guerrillas.
Five weeks later, he marched into an American camp,
sporting a Japanese saber and leading a band of 180 Filipino guerrillas. His aerial combat
over, he was known as "Grumman's best customer" after service on six carriers (two of
which were torpedoed), and surviving two ditchings and two parachute jumps. He was next
assigned to the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, where he evaluated the performance
of American and captured enemy aircraft. While commanding jet fighter squadron VF-51,
Vraciu won the High Individual Air-to-Air Competition in the 1957 Air Weapons Meet, out
shooting all Naval and Marine Corps pilots. He is a past president of the American Fighter
Aces Association and has been inducted into the Carrier Aviation Hall of Fame as well as
the American Combat Airmen Hall of Fame.
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On 19 June 1944, the air battle now called the "Marianas Turkey Shoot" became one of the US Navy's greatest victories of World War II when the fighter pilots of Task Force 58 shot down 369 enemy aircraft. Goaded into action by the American amphibious landings in the Marianas Islands, the Japanese fleet committed six carriers with over 400 fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo planes to the First Battle of the Philippine Sea. Alerted to a possible enemy air strike, Vraciu led the second division of VF-16 from the USS Lexington and soon sighted over 50 enemy aircraft approaching the task force. He immediately led his outnumbered division into the Japanese formation and, within eight minutes, single-handedly shot down six aircraft. For his gallantry and superior effort during this battle and his heroic efforts in other actions in World War II, Vraciu was awarded the Navy Cross.