The Plane and Pilot No.2: Alex Vraciu

Interview with Chris Bucholtz

Alex Vraciu poses with his plane the day following the "Mission Beyond Darkness." Note the 19 kill markings beneath the cockpit. (U.S. Navy via Vraciu)

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 action.

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 the Hellcat?

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 going out?

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? 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.

Paul 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 em. 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. 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 him.

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 "A 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 one 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 it goes!

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 after that?

AV:AV: 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 Darkness.

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? 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 my life.

IM: Even after this duty in Washington, you ended up going back to sea. What made you leave this job for duty aboard ship?

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 bout 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, "yes?" 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!"

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