Alex Vraciu, who was just 25 when he reigned as the Navy’s top World War II fighter ace after downing 19 Japanese aircraft and destroying 21 more on the ground in only eight months in 1944, died on Jan. 29 in West Sacramento, Calif. He was 96.
His son Robert confirmed the death, at a group home where his father lived.
Mr. Vraciu (which rhymes with cashew) accomplished his most spectacular feat in the South Pacific when he shot down six dive bombers within eight minutes in what became known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” in the Philippine Sea. He called it “a once-in-a-lifetime fighter pilot’s dream.”
Two of the aircraft carriers he flew from were torpedoed, twice he parachuted to safety, and twice more he was forced to ditch his Grumman F6F Hellcat — brushes with death that earned him the nicknames Grumman’s Best Customer and The Indestructible.
He was nominated for the Medal of Honor and received the service’s second-highest honor, the Navy Cross. And although he ranked as the Navy’s top ace for four months, he ended the war in fourth place. When he died, he was the nation’s ranking living World War II ace, according to theAmerican Fighter Aces Association.
He was born on Nov. 2, 1918, in East Chicago, Ind., the son of Romanian immigrants. His father, Alexander, was a police officer; his mother, the former Marie Tincu, was a homemaker. Shortly after graduating from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., already armed with a civilian pilot’s license, he enlisted in a Navy flight training program six months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“He could feel the wind of war and wanted to get out in front of it,” Robert Vraciu said in an interview.
Mr. Vraciu entered combat in 1943 as part of Fighting Squadron 6, serving as wingman for Lt. Cmdr. Butch O’Hare, the Navy’s first combat pilot ace and its first aviator to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II.
Mr. Vraciu achieved his pace-setting six kills under harrowing conditions on June 19, 1944, as Japanese planes attacked a task force of American carriers and battleships. His plane’s folding wings were mistakenly unlocked, and a malfunctioning engine was spewing oil on his windshield and preventing him from climbing above 20,000 feet. Still, he downed the dive bombers firing only 360 of the 2,400 bullets in his arsenal.
“I looked ahead,” he recalled in an interview with The Chicago Tribune. “There was nothing but Hellcats in the sky. I looked back. Up above were curving vapor trails. And down on the sea, in a pattern 35 miles long, was a series of flaming dots where oil slicks were burning.”
Interviewed for the University of North Texas Oral History Project, he recounted his sixth kill that day:
“Number six blew up with a tremendous explosion right in front of my face. I must have hit his bomb, I guess. I have seen planes blow up before, but never like this! I yanked the stick up sharply to avoid the scattered pieces and flying hot stuff, then radioed, ‘Splash No. 6!’ ”
“In my satisfaction with the day’s events,” he continued, “I felt that I had contributed my personal payback to the Japanese for Pearl Harbor.”
He scored his 19th kill the next day while escorting bombers attacking the Japanese fleet.
When he returned stateside that August, thousands of well-wishers, including the governor of Indiana, turned out for a parade in his hometown. It was there that he met Kathryn Horn, whom he would marry that year. She died in 2003. Besides his son Robert, he is survived by another son, Marc; three daughters, Marilyn Finley, Linda Patton and Carol Teague; 11 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.
By November 1944, Mr. Vraciu had talked his way back into combat, still motivated by the Pearl Harbor attack, by Commander O’Hare’s death in combat and by his uncle’s promise of a $100 bounty for every enemy plane he downed. (He told The Gary Post-Tribune in 2010, however, that “I didn’t fight a war for medals, and I didn’t fight it for money.”)
The next month, he parachuted to safety after being shot down over the Philippines and was rescued by local guerrillas.
“They asked me two questions,” he said. “They wanted to know if movie star Madeleine Carroll was married the second time and whether Deanna Durbin had any children yet.” After dodging Japanese patrols for five weeks, they encountered advancing American forces.
After the war, Mr. Vraciu worked for the Navy as a test pilot and commanded a fighter squadron. He retired in 1964 with the rank of commander and joined Wells Fargo Bank as a trust officer.
He appeared in a History Channel documentary and was the subject of a biography, “Fighter Pilot.” But he recalled for the oral history project that in the Navy he had never flaunted his credentials as an ace, a term usually defined as a pilot with five or more kills.
“We didn’t say, ‘Ah, I’m going to be an ace!’ Nor did many people say, ‘Congratulations, Ace.’ More probably, they’d kid you. You’d say: ‘How do you spell ace? With an s or a c?’ ”
Robert Vraciu recalled that although his father had been modest, he could also be unforgiving. When he was in his 80s, the fighter pilots association decided to invite a delegation of World War II Japanese aces to its annual convention.
“That didn’t sit well with him,” Robert Vraciu said. “I don’t think he was comfortable doing that. He lost a lot of friends. He had a long memory.”