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Lt. Vraciu signals six "Judy" kills (June 19, 1944). Note how the horizontal stabilizer of the Hellcat is being used as an impromptu table for his flight gear.
Lt. (jg) Alexander Vraciu in his Grumman F6F after the "Mission Beyond Darkness" during the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 20, 1944).
Alexander Vraciu (born November 2, 1918) was a leading U.S. Navy fighter ace during World War II.
Born of Romanian immigrant parents in East Chicago, Indiana, Vraciu lived briefly in Romania as a child. He graduated form DePauw University in 1941 and enlisted in the Navy that June. He was commissioned a naval aviator in August 1942, and at the end of March 1943, as a Naval Reserve Ensign, he joined Fighting Squadron Six under Lieutenant Commander Edward O'Hare, the navy's first ace of WW II. Butch O'Hare made Ensign Vraciu his wingman, and taught him everything he knew.
Vraciu entered combat in October 1943, flying from USS Independence (CVL-22) with Butch O'Hare as commander of Fighting Six. Vraciu scored his first victory during a strike against Wake Island on October 10, 1943. Alex Vraciu was O'Hare's wingman - both scored that day. When they came across an enemy formation O'Hare took the outside airplane and Vraciu took the inside plane. O'Hare went below the clouds to get a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero and Vraciu lost him, so he kept an eye on a second Zero that went to Wake Island and landed. Vraciu strafed the Zero on the ground, then saw a Mitsubishi G4M Betty bomber and shot it down. Alex Vraciu later told, "O'Hare taught many of the squadron members little things that would later save their lives. One example was to swivel your neck before starting a strafing run to make sure enemy fighters were not on your tail." Vraciu also learned from O'Hare the "highside pass" used for attacking the Japanese Mitsubishi Betty bombers. The highside technique was used to avoid the fatal 20-mm fire of the Betty's tail gunner.
The squadron later embarked aboard USS Intrepid (CV-11). Flying from "Evil I", Vraciu began scoring in multiples: three Mitsubishi G4M Bettys on January 29, 1944 and four fighters downed at Truk Atoll on February 17. With nine victories, he remained VF-6's leading ace throughout the war.
Rather than rotate home, Vraciu requested additional combat duty and joined VF-16 in USS Lexington (CV-16). By mid June he had run his score to 12 "kills", a record for carrier aviators at the time.
Vraciu's greatest day in combat occurred during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" on June 19. Despite a malfunctioning supercharger, he intercepted a formation of Japanese dive bombers and "splashed" six in a period of several minutes. The next day, escorting bombers in an attack on the Japanese Mobile Fleet, he downed his 19th victim.
Upon return the U.S., Vraciu was assigned to war bond sales, married his sweetheart Kathryn Horn, and wrangled a return to the Pacific. Joining VF-20, he flew only two missions before his Grumman Hellcat was shot down by antiaircraft fire over the Philippines in December. He was picked up by a guerrilla band and returned to safety six weeks later. He ended the war as the Navy's fourth-ranking ace.
Subsequently Vraciu became a test pilot and was instrumental in forming the postwar Naval Air Reserve program. Commander Vraciu led VF-51 from 1956 to 1958, winning the Navy's individual gunnery championship in 1957. He retired in 1964 to begin a career in banking.
As of 2006 Alex Vraciu is retired in California, the father of three daughters, two sons, and several grandchildren.
Alexander Vraciu was born in East Chicago, Indiana, and attended DePauw University on a scholarship where he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training program. He started naval flight training in late 1941, winning his wings in August, 1942. He qualified as a carrier pilot on the USS Wolverine, a converted Great Lakes steamer. His first combat unit was VF-3 (later redesignated VF-6) where he spent 5 months as wingman to Ed "Butch" O'Hare and shot down his first Japanese plane, a Zero over Wake Island in October 1943. He soon downed another Betty over Tarawa, and "made ace" on January 29, 1944 when he got three more Bettys over Kwajalein.
His next combat occurred on February 16 (still with the Intrepid's VF-6) on a strike at Truk and neighboring airfields at Moen, Eten, and Param Islands. The day started with a large fighter sweep, 72 Hellcats, over the Jap bases. Vraciu arrived over Moen at 13,000 foot altitude just before sunrise. Amidst the anti-aircraft fire, the Hellcats began diving toward the airstrips for their strafing runs. Looking all around, Lt. Vraciu spotted some Zeros above and to port, which he swung toward and attacked. Using the superiority maneuverability of the Hellcat at high speeds (over 250 knots), he successfully gained altitude on the Zeros and chased them into clouds and onto the deck. During this action he hit and set afire 3 Zeros, which hit the water inside Truk atoll. He then got another after a bit of cat-and-mouse in a cloud. The afternoon saw little air-to-air action, as Vraciu and the other Hellcat pilots escorted the bombers and torpedo planes on their runs. That evening, when the planes had returned, the Intrepid was hit by a torpedo and was withdrawn from combat for repairs.
He was then assigned to VF-16, and scored two more kills when he downed two Zeros in another raid on Truk on April 29, 1944. His twelfth victory was a Betty 'snooper' that he downed over Saipan on June 12. On June 14, he didn't add to his "air-to-air" wins, but he achieved the spectacular feat of sinking a Japanese merchant ship with a direct hit on its stern!
On June 19, 1944 during what came to be known as the Marianas "Turkey Shoot", he was assigned to CAP over the US fleet, and engaged an attacking Jap air group about 25 miles west of the USS Lexington. He shot down a remarkable 6 Japanese 'Judy' dive bombers in just eight minutes using only 360 rounds of ammunition.
In that frenetic interception, Lt. Vraciu even outperformed top ace David McCampbell, weaving his way through the enemy formation to pick off six enemy aircraft. Vraciu downed his initial quarry from a distance of only 200 feet and quickly reacted to avoid damage from the dive bomber's debris. He then crept toward a pair of dive bombers and shot down the trailing Judy before splashing the lead plane. Every minute brought the action continuously closer to Lexington, which meant that not only was the carrier in danger, but Vraciu and other American pilots would have to fly directly into their own ships' anti-aircraft fire to chase attacking enemy planes.
Vraciu scanned the skies, which by now were dotted with speeding Hellcats, plunging enemy planes, and hundreds of lethal bursts of anti-aircraft fire. He warned Lexington: "Don't see how we can possibly shoot 'em all down. Too many!" But he nevertheless chased after, and downed, a fourth dive bomber. Three other Judys zoomed into view as they began their final runs on ships below, and Vraciu followed them. He quickly downed the first but was forced into a perilous vertical dive to stop the second before it dropped its bomb on a destroyer. With anti-aircraft fire intensifying, Vraciu caught up to the enemy plane and destroyed it, then pulled out of his dive to avoid crashing into the water. Battleship anti-aircraft fire downed the final enemy dive bomber.
Vraciu headed back to Lexington, where he was almost killed by his own ship's fire. Shouting into his radio that he was an American, Vraciu finally landed. As he walked away from his plane, a tired Vraciu glanced toward Admiral Mitscher on the bridge and smiling widely, held up six fingers to indicate his success, a scene captured in a well-known photograph. His nineteenth (and last) victory came the next day when he got another Zeke.
He was referred to as "Grumman's Best Customer" after surviving two carriers being torpedoed, two ditchings and two parachute jumps. In December, 1944, he was shot down on a raid over Manila's Clark Field, and hid out with Filipino guerrillas for five weeks, before meeting up with American forces. Alex Vraciu ended WWII as the U.S. Navy's fourth-ranking ace with 19 enemy aircraft shot down plus 21 more destroyed on the ground. He spent the last few months of the war as a test pilot at the Navy's Patuxent River facility. After the war, he commanded VF-51.