The Navy's baddest pilot in World War II isn't who you think

Official U.S. Navy photo)

(Official U.S. Navy photo)

David McCampbell might be the Navy’s “Ace of Aces,” but there is one pilot who might not have McCampbell’s kill total, but who arguably performed a more notable feat. That pilot was Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa.

Vejtasa didn’t start out flying fighters. Early in 1942, he flew the SBD Dauntless and saw action during the Battle of the Coral Sea. On May 7, 1942, he took part in the attack on the light carrier Shoho, helping put that ship on the bottom. He received the Navy Cross for his part in that attack. The next day, while trying to protect USS Yorktown (CV 5) and Lexington (CV 2) from a Japanese attack, his SBD got jumped by seven Mitsubishi A6M Zeros. Vejtasa emerged from that engagement with three kills, two using the SBD’s two forward M2 .50-caliber machine guns. The third came when Vejtasa rammed the Zero, slicing off a wing. That earned a second Navy Cross.

Fast forward to October 1942. Vejtasa was now flying the F4F Wildcat, having been transferred from the SBD after his exploits at the Coral Sea. During the strikes the Japanese launched, he shot down two Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers and five Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo planes. It was a performance that arguably kept USS Enterprise (CV 6) from joining USS Hornet (CV 8) as hulks. Vejtasa got his third Navy Cross for his performance.

Vejtasa achieved all this in two days in the SBD and F4F. The former wasn’t even intended to fight the Zero, but Swede took down three. The F4F, while a good plane, was nowhere near the F6F Hellcat that McCampbell flew. The F6F had the benefits of insights gained from the Akutan Zero (an intelligence coup for the United States).

Vejtasa would share credit for a Kawanishi H6K “Mavis” flying boat during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal with three other pilots. It would be his last aerial victory, making his score 10.25 kills. Vejtasa’s kills are all the more impressive when you consider that in 1942, Japan still had many of the outstanding pilots who had flown the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Vejtasa would be sent back to the United States after the Battle of Guadalcanal. He was asked to test-fly the Vought F4U Corsair and angered Vought by handing them a list of changes that the “Ensign Eliminator” needed. After that, Vejtasa was sent to train the many pilots who were needed to fly the planes off of the carriers that would form Task Force 58 and Task Force 38. After the war, Vejtasa would spend most of his career as a test pilot, and even got some stick time on the F-4 Phantom before he retired.