This Navy 'ace of aces' shut down a 60-plane attack

Navy pilot David S. McCampbell, a commander at the time, set the single mission aerial combat record when he led a two-plane flight against a 60-plane Japanese attack and shot down at least nine of the enemy himself, forcing the Japanese forces back before they could fire on a single American ship.

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Navy Capt. David McCampbell as a pilot in World War II. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

McCampbell was the commander of the Navy’s Air Group Fifteen, often known as the “Fabled Fifteen,” on Oct. 24, 1944, when a large Japanese force was spotted near the USS Essex during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Japanese would have been nearly guaranteed a victory against the Essex since no aircraft were ready to defend the carrier.

Crews rushed to prepare McCampbell’s Hellcat and the commander jumped into his bird before it could even be entirely filled with fuel. McCampbell took off with just one other fighter to face approximately 60 Japanese planes.

In the air, McCampbell proved his reputation as one of the Navy’s fiercest pilots. He was able to engage the Japanese out of range of the carrier and shot down nine of them while disrupting the formations of the rest. The Japanese eventually turned back without firing a single time on the Essex.

The pilot would later receive the Medal of Honor for his actions. His nine aerial victories that day are believed to have taken place in 95 minutes, meaning he averaged about one enemy plane shot down every 10 minutes.

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Navy Capt. David McCampbell’s plane undergoes maintenance on board USS Essex off Saipan on July 30, 1944. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Then, the very next day, McCampbell and the Fabled Fifteen went on the attack. McCampbell acted as the targeting coordinator and piloted one of the planes in a massive assault with planes from three task groups. The American formation destroyed an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, and two destroyers while also damaging five other large ships. He later received the Navy Cross for this engagement.

McCampbell’s reputation as a feared pilot was earned well before Oct. 1944, too. In June of that year, he led a flight of U.S. defenders against an 80-plane attack by Japanese forces, disrupting the attack and shooting down seven of the enemy. In September, he led an attack on Japanese ships, shot down four enemy planes, and heavily damaged a merchant ship.

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Navy Commander David S. McCampbell’s plane had 34 Japanese flags to represent his victories over that many Japanese planes. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate Second Class Paul T. Erickson)

By the end of the war, McCampbell was credited with 34 victories over enemy planes and went down in history as being the only man to earn a Medal of Honor and a Navy Cross in two days. He was promoted to the rank of captain before his retirement.

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