The Plane and Pilot No.2: Alex Vraciu
Alex Vraciu poses with his plane the day following the "Mission Beyond
Darkness." Note the 19 kill markings beneath the cockpit. (U.S. Navy
At age 83, Alex Vraciu is still going strong, with a speaking schedule
that keeps him busy. Although he is best known for his six-kill mission
at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and his exploits during World War
II, Vraciu also played a pivotal role in establishing the Navy and Marine
Corps Air Reserve programs and later became commander of VF-51, winning
the 1957 Navy and Marine Corps Gunnery Meet while flying an FJ-3 Fury.
Vraciu, the U.S. Navy's fourth highest-scoring ace, took some time to
speak with Internet Modeler's Chris Bucholtz about his adventures in aviation.
Internet Modeler: You were in the
Civil Pilot Training (CPT) program before the war started. What made
you decide to go navy rather than army?
Alex Vraciu: I was in the Navy
before the war broke out. I had to declare between my junior and senior
years in college, but they let me finish my senior year in college. I
went to DePauw University, and after I graduated I went to Indianapolis
40 miles away and raised my hand. Only because I took the civilian pilot's
training. My instructor in Indianapolis, he's the one that got me thinking
Navy, so I declared myself for the Navy. When I went through training,
I asked for fighters. I told them that if I didn't get it, I was leaving.
Three months after I asked, they gave me fighters, and all went well,
but if they hadn't I would have gone right up to San Antonio. I would
have gone Army Air.
When I graduated, I went up to Great Lakes, but they didn't call me
up to go through elimination base at Glenview until October. In December,
I was in Chicago at my uncle's house when I heard on the radio what was
going on at Pearl Harbor. They finished us up at Glenview and quickly
sent us over to Dallas for a month in December of '41 before they decided
whether they would send us to Corpus Christi or Pensacola. We went to
Corpus Christi. Butch O'Hare came on over and spoke to us all. Later,
little did I know, I'd be flying his wing.
IM: It took a while for you to get
to the Pacific and into combat. Was that a frustrating experience?
AV: Everywhere we went we had to
sit around and wait we didn't have a carrier, didn't have a plane,
didn't have a squadron. But it was a blessing in disguise, because I got
in more gunnery and got in more flight time. We opened up Melbourne, Florida,
and we did it with F4Fs, and we flew the planes over to qualify on Lake
Michigan on the Wolverine. That's where I got my first carrier landing.
I took to it I didn't have any trouble at all. So I got my landings
real fast, and got back to North Island, and I flipped a coin with one
of the guys I went through training with to see who was going to be the
last pilot to be put on a jeep carrier to go to Guadalcanal as a replacement
as part of what the Navy was doing to help the Marines there. The funny
part of it is that he ended up getting malaria so did I after the
Philippines but he didn't do a darned thing, never got into any
IM: In reading about the Navy in
1941 and 1942, you see the same names coming up over and over again.
Was Navy air really as small as it seemed at the time?
AV: When we opened up Melbourne,
Florida, I was in class 1. There were two of us Vanderhoof and
Vraciu who were the only naval reservists. The other 10 were academy
guys. Dave McCampbell had been an LSO on the Wasp, and he was qualifying
students for field carrier landings. Gene Valencia had been an instructor,
and he talked his way out. Gene wanted fighters, and he was in class too.
So we'd fly half the day and then we'd either get a bicycle and go fishing
or do something crazy. I got to know Gene real well. He turned out to
be a really close friend. But there were three of the top four navy aces
Dave McCampbell, one and Gene, three and me, four. I was the leading
navy ace from June to October 1944, but when I was on leave for three
months, I was passed, and it wasn't meant to be.
IM: When you went into combat with
VF-6, you were part of one of the first Hellcat squadrons. You also
had a pretty good mentor to fly with...
AV: I ended up being assigned to
Butch's squadron. I quickly sent a letter to my friends still horsing
around at Glenview. Some of the guys weren't real anxious, but I guess
I was eager. I hadn't learned yet! We were one of the first three F6Fs
squadrons. The squadron was split up on three different CVLs. We got in
at the start of the roll-back of the carpet, starting from Marcus on in.
IM: That was in August 1943. What
did you do on the Marcus Islands raids?
AV: Marcus was strictly a strafing
deal. That was one of the early ones; they only had two fleet carriers
and one CVL, and that was it. I was Butch's wingman on that one, and I
moved up to his section lead for the next raid, which happened to be at
Wake Island on October 5 of '43. I got my first, a Zero, at Wake Island,
and I got a Betty on November 20th. Action came slowly, but it kept building
up. Being in the skipper's division, if anybody was going to go out, it
would be us. I was just that way I was lucky. I call it luck, naturally;
after all, a fighter pilot wants to be where the action is.
IM: The first Betty you knocked down
was scouting the fleet during the invasion of Tarawa. Didn't they have
your planes disembarked at Tarawa at some point?
AV: After the first Truk raid,
we were torpedoed on the Independence. I happened to be on the ship at
that time. I'd gotten the Betty a couple of days before that. While we
were on the Independence, another skipper took over for Butch but I was
still his section lead. The Independence had a cruiser cut the oil wake
off to get us out of the area and down to Funafuti, and then from there,
we spent a day offloading planes on to the little strip they had there,
and then we flew up the line and spent the night over at Tarawa, one of
the early nights. We were supposed to sleep in our planes and get a call
from one of the carriers and go aboard it. Well, the first night, the
Japanese were still coming out of the foxholes. You'd hear all these weird
stories the Marines would cut the Japanese down real fast, but
we spent the night all huddled down in a tent, laying flat! The next day,
we ended up being called by the Lexington, our particular group. Being
visitors on their carrier for the Kwajalein raid, we got to fly the combat
air patrols, so there was no action. But that's only fair we'd
have done the same to them if we'd been in their position! At least I
got to run into my real good friend Gene Valencia again.
IM: At Kwajalein on January 29, 1944,
you made ace by shooting down three more Betty bombers. VF-6 then moved
over to the Intrepid for a strike on Truk, where you downed three Zeroes
and a Rufe floatplane. Was there any secret to fighting the Zero in
AV: No, not really. You just had
to make sure you had an altitude advantage when the fight began, because
you really can't dogfight a plane that weighs half as much as you do.
You try to attack in a dive, or at least with a good advantage in speed.
There are a lot of little things you pick up for instance, you
could spin out a Zero on your tail if you knew what to do. When I ran
into the three Bettys, I just ran into some luck. But besides being composed,
smart and aggressive, you have to be ready and take advantage of what
situations present themselves, and hope you don't run into some good guys
from their side at their altitude.
The Hellcat was becoming outmoded by the end of 1944. Everybody knew
a lot of the weaknesses. In the Hellcat, if you knew the enemy, and a
guy who takes his job seriously is going to know, you would be okay. Not
that you weren't going to get mesmerized every once in a while and get
in trouble and be damn lucky that you got out of it. You try to work at
higher altitude with them, don't try to dogfight with them. Sometimes,
though, you have no choice.
IM: The same night as your attack
on Truk, Feb. 16, a Japanese Kate managed to torpedo Intrepid and the
ship made an epic journey to safety with the aid of a makeshift sail.
So now you've been torpedoed twice what on earth made you keep
AV: I didn't want to come back.
I figured, gosh, I worked so hard to get on out there. At Pearl Harbor,
after I'd come back from the Intrepid, I ran into a friend of mine I'd
gone to school with, Mark Bright. He'd joined the Navy a lot earlier that
I did, and he was at Guadalcanal on one of the carriers. I ran into him
at Pearl Harbor. He said, "Why don't you come join us?² I didn't
know VF-16 from any other squadron. They were on the Lexington and they
were on shore for a matter of a few weeks waiting for their next strike.
So I went up to ComAirPac or whatever they called themselves back then
and I saw this Captain Callan. This guy took me into the admiral and says,
"this guy wants to stay out here!" They thought I was crazy! I didn't
think I was crazy!
IM: Joining VF-16 put you in the
company of some other fairly high-scoring pilots.
Buie, CO of VF-16, coaches his pilots in a staged photo (U.S. Navy)
AV: When I joined VF-16, and we
hit Truk the second time, I had nine planes at that time. My good friend
Mark Bright had nine, the skipper of the squadron (Paul Buie) had nine.
We had a friendly competition. We went to the second Truk raid and I got
two Zeroes in the morning hop, but during the afternoon hop I was hit.
Truk was unusual. Truk was more exciting than even the Turkey Shoot.
IM: When you were in VF-6, you had
a problem with your ship being torpedoed. With VF-16, you had a problem
with your airplanes going into the drink!
AV: That's when I became known
as Grumman's best customer! After I joined VF-16, I put two Hellcats in
the water. The second time was in that second Truk raid. I got hit at
about 9000 feet starting to come out of dive. I got hit by a barrage that
came right through the cockpit. It got my landing gear handle, and my
wingman escorted me back to the carrier. I got a little piece, I think
I still have some in my knee. I'd never thought about that before!
They gave me a choice to parachute over the fleet or to ditch alongside
a destroyer. If you have control, you pick one of the lead destroyers
in the string of destroyers around the carriers. You pick one ahead so
you don't take that destroyer out of the screen for an enemy submarine
to get inside it. So I get all set to land, and the destroyer turns and
heads another direction. I get the guy on the radio and he asks, "what
are your intentions?" I said, "If you settle down down there, you'll find
out real quickly!" Boy, I could be a smart ass! I got all set, but the
seas were a little choppy so I had to be a little careful. Somebody taught
me to feel the water with your tailhook, so you don't hit the water BANGO!
and go on over. I did it perfectly the first time pure luck again!
I landed alongside, and the destroyer picked me up. I barely got wet.
The seas were so rough they couldn't bring the destroyer alongside the
carrier, and so I ended up having to spend the night and the captain gave
me his sea cabin. In the middle of the night, my left eye started hurting
a little bit. They didn't have doctors on destroyers, but they had a corpsman.
He took a peek in the eye and said, "You've got a piece of plexiglas embedded
in the eye!" So he deadened it and scraped it out, but I didn't tell anybody
I was afraid I wouldn't be allowed to fly again!
The first time was a combat air patrol, five and a half weeks before
that. The chief climbed on the wing of the plane before we launched and
said the pilot before had complained of something on there before. I had
not had a problem with a Hellcat before, so I said, "sure thing, chief!"
or some cocky stuff. I got up to 25,000 feet and started to circle around
over the carrier, doing nothing. All of a sudden I started smelling a
weird engine odor of some kind. I'll never find out what it was. It got
worse and worse, and finally I radioed that I thought I'd better get down.
They said to wait, and a little time went by and I just decided I should
get down. The landing carrier was not in position to take me aboard. I
gave them my hook down pass on the port side, which is the emergency signal.
I remember seeing some guy with a paint brush in his hand as I was going
by, and just then the engine cut out dead! I ended up with a dead stick
landing in the water. I wasn't alongside of a destroyer, but one came
up and overshot me three times. I yelled out to them, "What's the matter?
Don't you want your ice cream!" The captain apologized profusely and said
he hoped they could do better than that!
IM: A few weeks later came the Battle
of the Philippines Sea mission where you scored six Judys. A lot of
people don't realize that you had engine trouble on this mission.
AV: I couldn't get the engine into
high blower. The planes got tired in a hurry. That's why we had so many
additional planes and additional pilots. We were at full scramble, all
the way to 25,000 from the deck. The skipper's wingman, his engine froze,
and he ended up having to ditch. They picked him up 14 hours later. Five
of the guys, plus myself, couldn't keep up with the skipper. Naturally,
the skipper gets the best new engine on his plane!
IM: That meant that you were in just
the right position to intercept the next group of Japanese planes, which
means that balky engine contributed to your knocking down the six Judys.
One of the most famous photos of the Pacific war: Alex Vraciu signals
six kills following his "Turkey Shoot" mission. Note how the horizontal
stabilizer is being used as an impromptu table for his flight gear!
AV: I wish we'd had enough of them
stuck together I would have had a dozen or 15 of Œem. I should
have had seven. On my first pass, somebody else was going after the same
plane. My eyes were so big from having a fat target, I only saw him peripherally,
and we would have collided. So I had to pull off. But I used that time
to go underneath and take a look, and send a report in on what types of
planes there were bombers, torpedo planes, and a few fighters.
They tell me that I only used 10 rounds per gun for each plane, or about
360 rounds. When I got my last one, they were already shooting at us because
we'd reached the outer screen. There were three in a row and I got the
first one pretty quickly. The second one had already started down in his
dive and I caught up to him and I blew him to smithereens. There was one
more, but he was pretty far down, but the AA from the battleship he was
diving on got him.
IM: The next day, you scored your last
kill on what would come to be known as the "Mission Beyond Darkness.²
Was there anything unique about that kill?
AV: Not really about the kill.
He was a Zero, and he ducked into a cloud, but I wasn't letting go. I
went up-sun, and when he came out of the cloud, he never knew what hit
The mission itself was far more unusual. I saluted to the bridge as
I took off, because I didn't think I was coming back. A lot of us didn't.
They had us in and out of the ready room three times that day, but they
didn't locate the Jap fleet until late.
My equipment saved my life coming back from the Mission Beyond Darkness
on the 20th, by using the YE, getting that "A² signal from the carrier.
I had to come back alone. I lost my wingman over the Jap fleet. The top
cover got mesmerized watching the AA fire and got separated from us. I
had the middle cover, and I only had three planes. They didn't have enough
planes; only 216 planes went out and we lost over 100 from ditching from
lack of fuel. I lost my wingman in the fight, as we were the only ones
left with the bombers as they were heading down. I had to dive out of
it, because they had me boxed. I didn't like that feeling at all. That's
the one thing you have as a last-ditch maneuver you could outdive
the Japanese planes.
I went to the rendezvous area and I joined up with a TBM. He had a
low number, I think a 3 on the tail. He was shot up, and his bomb bay
doors were open and he was dragging. It was dusk by that time. He gave
me the gas signal in the form of a question. I nodded my head okay. But
he shook his head. He didn't have enough. The SB2Cs, they were out of
fuel before they got there. It was a record deal going out. We had to
go half-scale on our plotting boards, it was that far out. In addition
to it being 300 miles one way, you're escorting bombers that are going
150 knots at the best, so you lean out and you save gasoline, and you
do S-turns. It was a long way. Then you've got the problem that better
than 90 percent of the guys had never made a night landing on a carrier.
Now, I was lucky because of my bat team training. I trained for two months
for night operations, so I had a little more experience. But a lot of
these guys had never even practiced landing aboard at night.
IM: After this, Air Group 16 was
relieved and you were sent home for a few months, but you still managed
to wangle your way back to the fleet.
AV: I requested permission after
I came back home. I was taken to Guam, and the Lexington was being relieved.
When I went out there, I was assigned to Air Group 19 . They were the
ones who relieved Air Group 16 after the Turkey Shoot. They were kamikaze'd
in the second battle of the Philippine Sea. They were relieving Air Group
19, but I never flew a hop with them. Instead, the skipper of the ship
had me transferred to VF-20, which came aboard from the Enterprise. I
flew two hops with them and on my second hop in the afternoon is when
I got shot down strafing at Clark Field. I burned one plane, and then
I saw another oneŠ I used to go in close. You don't miss that way, and
you save ammunition. You may get hit once in a while, but that's the way
IM: The good news was that you ended
up in the friendly hands of the Filipino guerrillas, but that was it
for your combat duties in the Pacific. What did the Navy do with you
For a little while, I was the leading aviation public relations guy. On
one occasion, I had to speak for two minutes; they were honoring 40,000
people at Wrigley Field, honoring the workers. Actually, they made some
of the equipment that saved my life coming back from the Mission Beyond
After that, I got to visit the Grumman factory and fly the F8F Bearcat.
The factory used to pick the brains of the guys who did well with the
earlier products. I enjoyed the Bearcat a great deal, and I got to fly
it some more when I was assigned as a test pilot at the Naval Air Test
Center at Pautuxent River. I did the evaluation of the Bearcat, since
I'd flown it at the factory. At Pax River, one day I'd fly the Bearcat,
the next I'd fly the "Tony," the next day I'd fly the Corsair and all
the different aircraft. I was scheduled to fly the Me 262 tactical test.
They brought it over in a crate. Bert Ernst took it instead but they rigged
it up wrong, and they barely got it off the ground before they cracked
it up. So that would have been me, probably!
But the F8F would have been a great plane in combat, especially after
the small problems we identified at Pax River were cleared up. I remember
one flight in an F8F when I spotted an F7F Tigercat below me. I dived
below it, and did a slow roll around it. Well, the F7F turned into me,
and we started twisting and turning all the way down to the ground. Neither
one of us could gain an advantage over the other one. You'd think I'd
have had an advantage in the Bearcat, but we had a hell of a fight. When
I got down I called Tactical Test and asked, "who is flying that
Tigercat?² It turned out it was Marion Carl!
IM: When the war ended, I know that
you thought about leaving the Navy. What kept you in?
AV: The captain who had commanded
the Independence called me over at Pautuxent and asked if I'd come over
and have lunch with him at main Navy. He was given the assignment to start
the Navy and Marine Air Reserve program. He said he wanted someone with
a little name recognition. He wanted either Gene Valencia, my good friend,
or myself, and I was only 80 miles away at Pautuxent River. But I'd already
put in to get out. I wasn't vying to make a career. It wasn't until I
went over there for lunch, and he said that Admiral Mitscher had just
given him the assignment to start the program. I was the second guy
he started it and I was the second guy. He said, "how does the program
sound?" I said, "It sounds wonderful, Admiral, but I put in to get out."
He said, "I'll take that chance. If you will." A fighter pilot is supposed
to make up his mind in a hurry, I made up my mind fast. I went back to
Pautuxent River. To this day, I don't think the guy who was my immediate
superior in tactical test will ever believe I went over to the Navy Department
without knowing what I was going up there for.
I was there for six years with three bosses. I'd fight the battle of
the budget. I numbered all of the personnel and the aircraft, and I determined
the number of planes needed for 28 bases. It was best job I ever had in
IM: Even after this duty in Washington,
you ended up going back to sea. What made you leave this job for duty
AV: I wanted my own squadron. In
order to do that, I decided I wanted make regular navy while I was at
Los Alamitos. They picked two Lieutenant Commanders, and I was one of
the two. They quickly shot me over to line school, which is understandable.
Then, they assigned me as communications officer for the Hornet. I thought,
come on! But they assigned me 12 wonderful, brilliant young guys to be
on my staff, and I had a good CO on the carrier, and we made a game out
of it. I may have won the top gun honors, but I got just as much of a
kick winning the "E" for efficiency, of all the ships in the Pacific fleet.
I still keep in touch with a few of the guys who use to work for me.
IM: You got your squadron in 1956.
How did you go from communications officer on Hornet to CO of VF-51?
AV: I had my family parked in Coronado.
I'd take an SNB every once in a while for the weekend from Los Alamitos.
I got back from there and I got a phone call from ComAirPac. "Somebody
got killed in one of the squadrons. How would you like to get a jet squadron?"
I said, "how Œbout this afternoon?" I hopped out and got on over there.
I was already a jet training officer at Los Alamitos, because I'd gone
through jet training at Kingsville early on before I was called over to
the Navy Department.
I had the best fighter squadron we got the E. I didn't have
the honor of having it, but we did all the qualifications, and then we
were relieved and they didn't issue it out until a month later! I'm competitive;
I think competitiveness is a very important thing. It's not mean-spirited
stuff; I respect my competition as much as I hope they respect me
When I finally got my jet squadron, the Hornet was up at Bremerton
getting an angled deck. So the ship's air group was out, but the FJ-3
wasn't ready. So I had the squadron for almost 22 months.
IM: VF-51 won the E, but you also
took an important individual honor in 1957. Can you tell us about that?
Alex Vraciu in 1957, at the end of his career as commander of VF-51,
an FJ-3 Fury-equipped fighter squadron. (via Vraciu)
AV: I hadn't fired a gun for 12
years, and they had started the Naval and Marine Air Weapons Meet the
year before. The Atlantic Fleet against the Pacific. Tom Cruise made us
famous again, but that wasn't the way Top Gun started. It started as a
contest. I did everything I humanly could think of. I got in a lot of
gunnery, and I believed in the Fury. It was a good plane for it. Since
it was a jet, the guns were all in the nose, and in the weapons meet,
you're allowed 35 rounds per cannon, or 140 rounds. That's about two seconds
on target. The guy for the Atlantic Fleet who had won it the previous
year had set a new record. I thought he needed a little competition. There
was safety factor of about 600 feet for where the guns were supposed to
stop firing. I cut it down to about 200. I figured, dammit, if you were
in combat, you're going to get closer. I was taught to get in closer,
save ammunition, save fuel.
IM: Although you never intended it,
you're now kind of a celebrity among people who know World War II aviation
history. Do you ever run into others who served with you but who might
not get as much of a spotlight?
AV: Sure! The Lexington is now
a museum in Corpus Christi. During the ceremonies when the Navy was turning
the carrier over to the lady mayor, a guy came up to me, and he says,
"you know that famous photo?" I said, "yesŠ?" He said, "I'm the one
just to the left of you." Another gentleman came over and said, "You owe
me a bottle of booze." That immediately got me wondering. He said, "I
packed your parachute for you when you had to use it in the Philippines,
when you were with the guerrillas for five and a half weeks." I said (laughing),
"Oh? What do you drink? Scotch, bourbon, or what!"