In war, young men are pushed to their limits in defense of their country. The defense of the United States during World War II demanded much of the men fighting the war. Thousands made the ultimate sacrifice. One of the most noted fighter pilots during the war was Texas flying ace Neel Kearby. In his short life, he become one of the most decorated pilots in the Pacific, including earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits.
Neel Ernest Kearby was born in Wichita Falls in June 1911. His father was a physician. After spending his early childhood in Wichita Falls, they moved to Mineral Wells. A few years later in 1924, the family moved again to Arlington where he graduated from Arlington High School in 1928.
After graduation, Kearby worked a series of odd jobs in Dallas for a time before continuing his education. In 1930, he enrolled at what is now called the University of Texas at Arlington. His college education was interrupted several times before he earned a degree in business administration in 1937.
By the mid-1930s, Kearby had enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Corps. He began his flight training at Randolph Field in San Antonio, one of the most important army flight schools.
When World War II started in 1941, Kearby was quickly called into action. The war in the Pacific spread out thousands of square miles. It was a bitter war of soldiers fighting on nameless beaches and unforgiving jungles on a string of islands, ships blasting each other on the high seas, and planes dueling in the sky. Because of the great distances between habitable islands with modern airstrips and military facilities, air superiority determined the course of the war.
By October 1942, he was given command of the 348th Fighter Group. After a few months of training, the squadron moved to a forward position in the South Pacific. Now a lieutenant colonel, Kearby led the 348th on daring attacks on the Japanese using the new P-47 fighter.
The P-47 had only been introduced into service in November 1942 by Republic Aviation. Thousands were manufactured for use by the United States, Great Britain and France. It was durable and maneuverable, able to climb quickly and attain high speeds and high altitudes. The P-47 was known for a distinctive bubble-shaped cockpit that allowed pilots to look in all directions, a valuable advantage in aerial combat. The airplane was mostly used by the U. S. Army Air Force.
Kearby realized that the P-47 could climb higher than Japanese planes. He designed numerous new formations and attack patterns diving from high altitudes onto unsuspecting Japanese bombers and fighters. He quickly became an ace in his trusty fighter he called “Fiery Ginger” after his wife.
In October 1943, while leading a reconnaissance mission against enemy positions in New Guinea, he spied a Japanese bomber squadron with a heavy fighter escort. He and the three other pilots with him attacked, outnumbered twelve-to-one. He shot down six planes, the most shot down by an American pilot in one day up to that point. For this act of valor, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Kearby was promoted to full colonel and given a staff position with the 5th Air Force. He had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Silver Star. Kearby had done his duty, but he wanted to go back and fight alongside the men of his unit. He continued to fly missions, compiling a record of 21 planes shot down by March 1944.
On March 5, he was again leading a mission when they encountered a Japanese squadron. He chased after and shot down a Japanese plane. In the process, another sighted and attacked Kearby’s aircraft. The enemy fighter blasted away at Kearby’s P-47, fatally damaging the engine. The plane stalled and sped toward the ground. Kearby was apparently injured in the attack but managed to parachute away from his doomed plane. It crashed into a thick jungle forest on the one of many islands in the area. Kearby landed not far from the craft, but he was too far from help. Unable to get medical assistance, he soon died. He was 33 and left behind a widow and three children.
Because of the course of the war, the military was not able to recover Kearby’s remains for several more years. He was not laid to rest until 1949. His brother, Maj. John G. Kearby, was also killed during the war, and the family had the two buried next to one another. It was a testament to a family that had sacrificed so much for the nation.
His legacy was not forgotten. In 1959, a building was named for him at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls. The city of Alexandria, Louisiana, named a street for him near their airport, a former air base. In 2010, the Texas Historical Commission and the City of Arlington unveiled a historical marker and statue at the city’s public library.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org