On January 29 I lost a cherished friend; one of my last lifelines to my parents’ generation.
Alex Vraciu (“Rhymes with cashew”) was a superb naval aviator and America’s top living ace. With 19 confirmed victories he finished WW II as the Navy’s fourth-ranking fighter pilot, a position he’s bound to retain. Aside from the fact that air combat is nearly extinct on Planet Earth, no future war is likely to last long enough for anyone to engage—let alone destroy—twenty enemy aircraft.
Al was an example of the condensed generations of aviation knowledge and experience. He learned the trade from Lieutenant Commander Edward H. O’Hare, the Navy’s first WW II ace, who received a Medal of Honor for a five-kill mission off Rabaul, New Britain, in February 1942. But “Butch” O’Hare had been tutored by the master—Lieutenant Commander John H. Thach, skipper of Fighting Squadron Three who devised the “beam defense” maneuver that became better known as the Thach Weave.
Therefore, between 1941 and 1943, when Al broke into combat flying with O’Hare from USS Independence (CVL-22), three generations of wartime aviators had cycled through fleet squadrons.
In June 1944 Al was already a 12-victory Hellcat pilot when he made history in The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. He received one of the best vectors of the war, overtaking a formation of Japanese dive bombers bearing down on Task Force 58 off Saipan. In a sizzling eight minutes Al splashed six “bandits” with merely 360 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition. That’s 60 rounds per kill, merely 10 rounds per gun. Better shooting just was not possible.
The next evening, escorting USS Lexington (CV-16) bombers in the “mission beyond darkness,” Alex saw the first Japanese carriers found by American aviators in twenty months. He shot down a Zero for his final victory, then navigated back to his task group in the cloying darkness of a moonless night. He barely got aboard Enterprise (CV-6), “Lex’s” team mate.
Accorded a celebrity’s welcome back home in East Chicago, Indiana, Alex noticed a raven-haired beauty in the crowd. Never shy, he introduced himself and they were married before he left for another combat tour.
Again flying from Lexington, Alex logged one mission over the Philippines before his F6F was tagged by AA fire on November 14. He bailed out, was scooped up by friendly Filipinos, and spent several weeks with a guerrilla band before reaching American forces. His war was over.
But it didn’t end there. Al remained in the Navy, and in 1957 he had his own squadron. He led VF-51’s North American FJ-3 Furies in the annual gunnery competition and emerged on top—the Navy’s top gun three decades before the live-action cartoon movie of that name.
Al was well known to aviation buffs, and inevitably he was polite and tolerant to historians and well wishers. But he was far more than the famous ace. In the 40-plus years I was fortunate to know him and his family, I came to appreciate Al for his human qualities. He was an American success story—the son of Romanian immigrants who paid his way through college, survived the Navy’s rigorous selection and training process, and emerged in 1945 as an inspiring example of his generation. He married his darling Kay with whom he raised five children, and retired as a commander in 1957 to pursue a career in banking.
I met Alex about 1971 during a job-hunting trip to California.
He was still working with Wells Fargo but, gentleman that he was, he took a long lunch to accommodate my schedule. We hit it off, and in subsequent trips I enjoyed Vraciu hospitality in Danville. The most memorable was in 1989 when we were settling down to watch Game Three of the cross-town World Series when the 6.9 earth quake struck the East Bay. In about 30 seconds it killed or injured 3,800 people, inflicted some $5 billion damage—and sloshed a lot of water out of the Vracius’ swimming pool.
(I’d almost forgotten, but on an earlier trip Al, Kay and I attended an A’s game. Oakland swept the ’89 series.)
Few would have recognized Al as a fighter ace. He was far removed from the loud, egotistical stereotype, although
people familiar with the breed know that the tiger blood surges in some pilots when they start the engine with loaded guns on board. Whether it’s compartmentalization or a change in brain chemistry, some personalities change when they strap in.
As mothers used to tell their daughters, “Watch out for the quiet ones.”
Yet Alex was not only a gentleman but a truly gentle man as well. I recall an aces reunion in 1974 when Al met another member who had started a second family. The former Flying Tiger’s son was no more than five at the time, but Alex spent part of an afternoon playing with the boy. It’s been said that the measure of a person is how he treats those who cannot benefit him, and I learned more about Alex Vraciu that day.
Alex’s other trait was charm—the natural kind, not the manufactured or conscious variety. The last two times I saw him were at Tailhook reunions, as he wanted to support that beleaguered organization, the intended victim of political agendas and political cowardice. He was our guest as an annual gathering among some of the hardest of the hard core, including a carrier captain, veterans of Vietnam and Iraq combat, and their wives. Without effort, Al became one of the guys rather than the biggest elephant in the room. The ladies felt his old-world charm, and they comment on it even today.
Those of us who record history have known for decades that this time was coming. We’re seeing the passing of the WW II generation—damn few of whom subscribe to Tom Brokaw’s hype. Our mutual friend Joe Foss used to say, “We weren’t the greatest—we just did what we had to do.”
Al Vraciu was the last of scores of WW II naval aviators I knew well. My last friend among Flying Leathernecks was Colonel Jim Swett, who departed the pattern in 2009. Today that leaves one Army Air Force pilot among my close friends—one among hundreds.
Whatever your area of interest, folks, if you have any intention of helping record history, here’s three words of advice:
DO IT NOW.