Friday, February 3, 2017

Hellcat Ace: Indiana's Alex Vraciu

On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, those in the United States that were listening to their radios were stunned to hear of an attack by the Japanese Empire on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. At 2:26 p.m., Len Sterling, staff announcer for WOR Radio in New York, interrupted a broadcast of a professional football game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants at the Polo Grounds to read the following bulletin from the United Press news agency: “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President [Franklin] Roosevelt has just announced.”

Soon, other radio stations broadcast the momentous news to a stunned and disbelieving nation. Some even thought that broadcasters were trying to pull a hoax similar to the one Orson Welles had done with his famous October 30, 1938, War of the World broadcast on Halloween that tricked some Americans into thinking the nation was being invaded by Martians. Others, however, were determined to avenge the defeat and began lining up at recruiting centers for the army, navy, and marines.

In December 1941 twenty-three-year-old Alex Vraciu, born in Indiana Harbor, Indiana, the second child and only son of a longtime police officer in that community, was stationed at the U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base in Glenview, Illinois, where he received training to become a fully qualified navy pilot. Vraciu had recently graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he was respected for his athletic ability, but best known for having a wicked sense of humor and for playing an elaborate prank with his fraternity brothers on a psychology professor that received nationwide attention.

During a summer break from his college studies between his junior and senior year at DePauw, Vraciu had earned a private pilot’s license through the federal government’s Civilian Pilot Training program. Relaxing at the home of his uncle in the Chicago suburbs that Sunday in December, Vraciu remembered being as shocked as millions of other Americans were when they heard the news over the radio about the disaster at Pearl Harbor. “I had a big mad on . . . after Pearl Harbor,” recalled Vraciu, whose anger also grew as he later saw his friends fall to Japanese gunfire. He vowed to gain a measure of revenge on the enemy, and his uncle promised to pay him $100 for each Japanese aircraft he destroyed.

Vraciu earned his navy wings in August 1942 and eventually became one of the more than three hundred navy pilots flying from U.S. carriers in the Pacific Theater to earn the title of an ace (downing five confirmed enemy aircraft in aerial combat). He did so while flying the famous F6F Hellcat fighter plane built by the Grumman Aircraft Company of Bethpage, New York. “The Hellcat gave us not only the speed, range, and climb to compete successfully against the Zero,” Vraciu noted, “but it could dictate the rules of combat.” One Hellcat pilot spoke for many when he exclaimed: “I love this airplane so much that if it could cook I’d marry it.”

While stationed in Hawaii early on during his service, Vraciu became the wingman of legendary pilot Lieutenant Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare, who had been awarded his country’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for shooting down five Japanese bombers. “We were training with a legend. I learned my trade from one of the best!” Vraciu said of O’Hare, for whom O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is named. “He taught you lessons you didn’t realize until you are fighting in combat yourself that may have saved your life.”

Vraciu learned well with O’Hare’s Fighting Squadron 6. Finally making it into combat at the end of August 1943 as part of a strafing raid on a Japanese base on Marcus Island, Vraciu earned his first aerial victory by shooting down a Zero in October during a mission against Wake Island. Vraciu’s feud with his opponents in the air had become much more personal when he learned that his mentor, O’Hare, had been killed in combat on November 26, 1943, apparently by a Japanese Betty bomber during a confused night battle. He vowed to shoot down ten of the same aircraft to avenge O’Hare’s death.

The Hoosier pilot began to make good on his promise and achieved ace status on January 29, 1944, when he downed three Betty bombers near Kwajalein. “Between the vow on Butch and Pearl Harbor, I think that probably was the biggest single motivator—driving force—in my life as to why I preferred to be out there rather than back home,” Vraciu later explained. “I’d rather be in combat. That’s really what it did to me. That’s the honest truth.”

Possessed with keen eyesight, quick reflexes, excellent shooting instincts, and a knack for finding his opponent’s weak spot, Vraciu became skilled in the deadly game of destroying the enemy in the skies over the Pacific Ocean. “That was our job,” he noted. “That is what we were trained to do. You can’t be squeamish about the thing or you don’t belong in a cockpit of that kind of an airplane [a fighter]. Nobody told you it was going to be an easy job.”

For a period of four months in 1944, Vraciu stood as the leading ace in the U.S. Navy. He shot down nineteen enemy airplanes in the air, destroyed an additional twenty-one on the ground, and sank a large Japanese merchant ship with a well-placed bomb hit. He also earned a distinction as “Grumman’s best customer,” as he twice had to ditch his Hellcat in the ocean due to battle damage or mechanical failure, and two of the carriers he served on were torpedoed (but not sank) by the Japanese.

Perhaps Vraciu’s most notable achievement in the war came on the morning of June 19, 1944, while part of a carrier task force protecting American forces landing on Saipan in the Mariana Islands. Facing an attack from a large Japanese fleet, Vraciu and other American pilots rushed to their planes to protect the American ships in a lopsided air battle that became known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

Calling the mission a “once-in-a-lifetime fighter pilot’s dream” when he spotted a large mass of enemy planes bearing down on the U.S. fleet, Vraciu, launched from the USS Lexington, pounced on the Japanese and shot down six dive-bombers in just eight minutes. “I looked ahead,” Vraciu told a Chicago Tribune reporter. “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.”

The Hoosier pilot had accomplished this stunning feat despite a number of mechanical difficulties. Engine trouble caused Vraciu’s windshield to be smeared with oil, which meant he had to fly his Hellcat close to the enemy so he could see what he was aiming at. Later he also learned that he flew his mission with his plane’s wings not securely locked into place (aircraft serving on carriers usually had folding wings in order to be stored in the tight confines of the ship). Returning to the Lexington, Vraciu found that he had used just 360 rounds of ammunition from his Hellcat’s six .50-calibre machine guns—an impressive display of shooting.

Vraciu’s luck, however, finally ran out on December 14, 1944, during a strafing run against a Japanese airfield before the American invasion to retake the Philippines. Heavy anti-aircraft fire hit his Hellcat, puncturing his oil tank. “I knew I had it,” he remembered. “Oil was gushing out and going all over my canopy, and my oil pressure was rapidly dropping. There was no way I’d be able to get back to my carrier.”

After safely bailing out of his stricken plan, Vraciu parachuted to the ground close to enemy-held territory near Mount Pinatubo, an active volcano. Luckily he was almost immediately rushed to safety by a small group of U.S. Army of the Far East guerillas, who had been battling the Japanese in the area for the past few years. The small force was under the command of an American who had escaped from Japanese capture after the surrender of U.S. troops in 1942.

The navy flyer spent the next five weeks with the guerrillas, receiving the honorary rank of brevet major while with them. “For the final week of this episode,” Vraciu recalled, “I found myself in command of 180 men, dodging Japanese to meet General [Douglas] MacArthur’s advancing Americans.” He finally marched into an American camp carrying with him a captured Japanese pistol and sword. Unfortunately, because of his time behind enemy lines, Vraciu was prevented by navy officials from participating in the last missions against the Japanese home islands. When the war finally ended with Japan’s surrender on August 14, 1945, Vraciu, the navy’s fourth-ranking ace, was in the United States flying as a test pilot at the Naval Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland.

After the war, Vraciu remained in the navy, working in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. During the 1950s he reached the “ultimate desire of all fighter pilots” when he took command of his own squadron, becoming the leader of Fighter Squadron 51, flying North American FJ-3 Fury jet fighters. Retiring from the navy in 1964 with the rank of commander, Vraciu began a career in banking for Wells Fargo in California. Today, he lives in Danville, California, in the home where he and his late wife raised five children (three daughters and two sons). Vraciu died on January 29, 2015, at the age of ninety-six.

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