Captain David McCampbell is the US Navy's "ace of aces." Born in 1910, the Alabama native graduated from Annapolis in the midst of Navy manpower cutbacks during the Depression and was honorably discharged in 1933. Called back to active duty 1 year later, he eventually went to naval flight training and served his first tour as a fighter pilot on the carrier USS Ranger. In 1940, he became a landing signal officer (LSO) and served aboard the aircraft carrier Wasp until Japanese submarines sank the ship in September 1942. For the next year, McCampbell served as an LSO instructor in Florida, after which he was appointed as a fighter squadron commander with Air Group 15. In February 1944, he assumed command of the entire Air Group, which was then assigned to the USS Essex.
For the next 6 1/2 months, Air Group 15 saw almost continuous action and participated in attacks on Marcus and Wake Islands, the Marianas, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Formosa, and Okinawa, as well as the two key air/sea battles of the Pacific Campaign--the Battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf. During this period, McCampbell achieved 34 aerial victories--the record number for an American pilot on a single tour of duty--and destroyed 21 additional aircraft on the ground. Under his leadership, Air Group 15 became known as "The Fabled Fifteen," and they established a Navy record for the most enemy airplanes shot down (318), the most aircraft destroyed on the ground (348), and the most aircraft destroyed in a day (68).
His unit also sank a record 296,500 tons of enemy shipping, including 1 battleship, 3 aircraft carriers, 9 cruisers, and 19 destroyers. For his nine victories during the Marianas "Turkey Shoot" in June 1944 and his incredible combat performance at Leyte Gulf 5 months later, Commander McCampbell was awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war, he served as commander of the attack carrier USS Bon Homme Richard and in other key high-level staff positions. An inductee into the Carrier Aviation Hall of Fame, Captain McCampbell retired from the Navy in 1964, after 31 years of service.
On 24 October 1944, the first day of the Battle for Leyte Gulf, Commander McCampbell's F6F-5 Hellcat was only partially fueled when a large formation of approaching Japanese aircraft was spotted on radar moving in to attack the task force's four aircraft carriers. Scrambling from the Essex with only six other fighters, McCampbell directed five of his pilots to attack 20 Japanese bombers while he and his wingman moved to intercept the 40 enemy fighter escorts. During the savage 90-minute air battle that followed, McCampbell destroyed nine enemy aircraft while his wingman shot down an additional six. The ferocity and skill of the seven Navy pilots from the Essex resulted in the destruction of 27 enemy planes and the complete rout of the remaining aircraft. Not a single enemy fighter or bomber got through to attack the fleet. Furthermore, Commander McCampbell's nine aerial victories on that day established the American record for the most aircraft shot down by a pilot on a single mission.