When a Medal of Honor Is Not Enough

Neal Kearby CO 348th FG

Kearby with his trademark wide, Texas grin. Charismatic, daring and capable of evoking tremendous loyalty, Neel Kearby remains one of the great combat leaders the USAF has ever produced.

Let’s talk Neel Kearby.

He is remembered as one of the greatest fighter combat leaders of the Pacific War. Neel had joined the USAAF in the mid-1930s after finishing college in Texas. He quickly became one of the best fighter pilots in the service, an aviator known to win mock-dogfights against his peers–while eating an apple and flying with one hand.

Combined with his natural flying abilities, Kearby possessed a tactical genius that is often overlooked. He could extract the utmost performance out of any aircraft he flew, then used his flying skills to maximize its attributes and minimize its weaknesses in a fight.  He was a holy terror in a P-47, demonstrating its potential to a skeptical 5th Air Force in 1943.

Not only could he fly and fight, he generated intense loyalty and confidence among the men he led in battle. The 348th Fighter Group was his baby. He’d trained the men Stateside and built the unit into a tough, unified and exceptionally capable outfit that included a whole crop of subordinate officers who Kearby mentored into outstanding leaders in their own right. This included Charles MacDonald, who would go on to be one of the great USAAF combat leaders of the war, commanding the 475th Fighter Group through its heaviest action in the Southwest Pacific Area  (SWPA).

kearby macdonald with the 475th fg

Kearby (center) with Charles MacDonald shortly after Mac took command of the 475th. MacDonald was probably Kearby’s closest friend in the SWPA.

When Neel arrived in the SWPA in May 1943 with his ADVON, he was determined to become America’s leading ace. He quickly learned who the theater’s high scorers were, and went to work flying missions both with the 348th Fighter Group, and with various P-38 units.

Most people remember the free-lancing Bong and Lynch did in early 1944. Neel was the original free-lancer. Between leading the 348th on short-range transport escort missions in August of 1943, Kearby talked his way onto the Wewak strikes that devastated the Japanese Army Air Force units in the SWPA that month. He had never flown a P-38 before that first mission, though he did have some two-engine aircraft time, including several hours in B-26 Marauders.

Later, after his Medal of Honor mission in October 1943, Kenney pulled him up to V Fighter Command HQ, and the 348th continued on without their daring, aggressive and inspirational leader.

kenney and wurthsmith

Kenney (center, left) and Wurtsmith (center, right).

Contrary to a lot of secondary sources, Kenney did not put Kearby into V FC to give him license to free lance. Kenney wanted him on the ground chained to a desk, and to do so, he was made the deputy commander of V FC, taking over for LTC Morrissey, who went home on leave.

There’s a space in November 1943 where it worked. Kenney’s wild man field grade was stuck on the ground learning his new role at HQ.

But at the end of November, the V FC commanding general, Paul Wurtsmith, also went home on leave. Kearby was the only full colonel on V FC staff at the time, and he was made acting commander of all the 5th Air Force’s fighter units.

AFHRA images027

A publicity photo from November 1943, showing Kearby overwhelmed with his new staff job at V Fighter Command HQ.


He was the boss for the next six and a half weeks. And the first thing he did, was get back in the cockpit of a P-47 and start four-plane hunting patrols over Wewak with several members of the 348th.

In early January 1944, Kearby knew his days in combat were limited, as Kenney was unhappy he was still flying, and Wurtsmith was en route back to retake command of the V FC. Kearby knew that when Wurtsmith got back, he would make LTC Morrissey his deputy CO and chief of staff again, the position that Morrissey had held before he too went on leave in early November. Kearby would effectively be without a job, as he couldn’t remain in V FC as a full colonel when the XO was only an LTC.

348th fg neel kearby wewak vf wewak 12 22 44

A still image from Kearby’s gun camera footage from December 22, 1943.

So it looked like he’d probably be pushed out to command one of the air task force HQ’s that Kenney and Whitehead had established to run specific campaigns or operations. These task forces, notably the 308th and 309th Bomb Wings, were a flexible sort of frontline command node designed to incorporate both fighter and bomber groups on a temporary tasking to knock out a particular target or support a specific amphibious operation.

Looking ahead, Kearby wanted to incorporate a combat role for himself so he could continue to hunt. He came up with the idea of using Gerald Johnson’s 9th Fighter Squadron to run constant four-plane patrols over Wewak that would be “closely supervised by the task force commander.” <— which would be him, of course, leading from the air.

This document I’ve attached here is one of several Kearby wrote and sent up to 5th Air Force in hopes of getting approval for what would be a license to hunt as a task force commander after Wurtsmith and Morrissey returned.

The tactics Kearby details here are the ones he worked out and used personally during his many four-plane hunting flights over Wewak from October through early January. He gives great detail and insight into how the tactics were supposed to work here.V FC Hst 0144-0644 Kearby Wewak Proposal P2

V FC Hst 0144-0644 Kearby Wewak Proposal P3Kearby’s natural aggressiveness and desire to be the top ace in theater caused him to violate his own tactical doctrine several times. But you can see the thought and discipline such tactics required through his own words.

This proposal to use the 9th Fighter Squadron in this manner was ignored. The staff at 5th AF clearly saw it as a transparent effort to find a combat role for himself. After the MOH announcement in late January, Kearby pleaded with Kenney to be allowed to remain in the theater. He bounced around from the 308th and 309th Bomb Wings, taking different temporary positions in both. He continued to borrow 348th FG aircraft to hunt whenever he could get away with it, but by the end of February Kenney had had enough. He told Kearby his combat flying was done. If he flew in combat again, he’d be sent home. Kearby ignored him, determined to keep pace with Bong and Lynch. Ultimately, that pressure to score before he was sent home caused him to take tactical gambles that cost him his own life.

The details of Kearby’s life in combat and his impact on the ace race in the SWPA can be found in Race of Aces. Race of Aces_James M. Scott quote[1]

Categories: World War II, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “When a Medal of Honor Is Not Enough

  1. It looks like Curtis LeMay on the left in that publicity shot but he’s has a cigarette and not his trademark stogie I also believe he was not in that theater of action at that time.

    Kearby was shot down in his P-47, yes?

  2. Fantastic story!

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