Hailing from East Chicago, Indiana, Alexander Vraciu became the fourth ranking United States Navy Ace during World War II by shooting down 19 Japanese aircraft and destroying 21 more on the ground. After graduation from DePaul University in 1941, he entered naval flight training and earned his "Wings of Gold" in August 1942. His first operational assignment was to Fighting Squadron Six (VF-6), commanded by Medal of Honor recipient "Butch" O'Hare. Flying the Grumman F6F Hellcat from CVL-22, USS Independence , Vraciu shot down his first enemy aircraft, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, over Wake Island in October 1943. Next, he shot down a Mitsubishi G4M Betty bomber over Tarawa, and on 29 January 1944 became an Ace when he downed three more Betty's over Kwajalein atoll.
He brought his list of aerial victories to 9 aircraft by downing 4 more enemy planes on 16 February 1944 during Task Force 58's first strike on heavily fortified Truk atoll. When VF-6 rotated home, Vraciu transferred to VF-16 on board CV-16, USS Lexington. Over the next 5 months, he gained ten more aerial victories over Truk, Saipan, and the Marianas. Six came on a single mission on 19 June 1944, when in little more than a minute he downed that many Yokosuka D4Y1 Judy dive bombers during the battle of the Philippine Sea, or as it is often called, the "Marianas Turkey Shoot." When VF-16 returned to the States, once more, Vraciu requested continued combat duty and was transferred to VF-20 on the USS Lexington.
In December 1944, he was shot down over the Philippines, but was picked up by friendly guerrillas. Five weeks later he marched into an American camp sporting an inch-long beard and a Japanese sword as a trophy. His aerial combat over, Vraciu was assigned to the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent, Maryland, where he evaluated performance of American and captured enemy aircraft. Post-war assignments included staff duty in the Navy Department, attendance at Naval Post-Graduate School, and then sea duty as the communications officer aboard CV-12, USS Hornet. He fulfilled his greatest career desire when he became Commanding Officer, VF-51.
Flying the North American FJ3 Fury, he won "top-gun" honors for the high individual score in the 1957 Naval Air Weapons Meet. After retirement from the Navy in 1964, he became an active member of the American Fighter Aces Association, serving 1 year as the association's President. Recently, he traveled to the United Kingdom and was reunited with one of his World War II Hellcats; the fully restored aircraft is one of many warbirds flown from the Imperial War Museum's airfield at Duxford.
Truk Atoll in Caroline Islands was "The Gibraltar of the Pacific." It was the main anchorage for the Japanese Navy outside the home islands. The first US Navy strike against Truk came on 16 February 1944 when Task Force 58 launched 70 F6F Hellcats on a fighter sweep of the island. Lt (jg) Alex Vraciu was about to begin a strafing run when he spotted bandits attacking from above. Vraciu broke up the enemy formation and then shot down two Japanese Zeros and a Rufe float plane, all within the confines of Truk lagoon. As he climbed to altitude, he spotted another Zero near a cloud and, after a game of cat-and-mouse, slipped behind the enemy aircraft and destroyed it!