Born in East Chicago, Indiana, Alexander Vraciu became the Navy’s fourth ranking ace during World War II by shooting down 19 Japanese aircraft and destroying 21 more on the ground. After graduation from DePauw University in 1941, he entered naval flight training and earned his wings in August 1942. His first combat assignment was flying Grumman F6F Hellcats on the wing of Medal of Honor recipient “Butch” O’Hare, commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 6 (VF-6). Flying from the USS Independence, he shot down his first enemy aircraft, a Zero fighter, at Wake Island in October 1943. His second, a Betty bomber, was downed at Tarawa.
On 29 January 1944, Vraciu became an ace when he downed three more Bettys over Kwajalein. He brought his total aerial victories to nine by downing four more Zeroes on 16 February 1944 during Task Force 58’s first strike on heavily fortified Truk atoll. When VF-6 rotated home, Vraciu thought there was still a job to be done and requested continued combat duty. The Navy assigned him to VF-16 aboard USS Lexington. Over the next 5 months, he achieved 10 more aerial victories over Truk, Saipan, and the Marianas. Six of his aerial victories came on a single mission on 19 June 1944, when he shot down six Judy dive-bombers in eight minutes in the “Marianas Turkey Shoot.”
Amazingly, he used only 360 of the 2,400 rounds of ammunition aboard his F6F Hellcat during the melee and directly contributed to the breaking up of a concentrated enemy attack on the American task force. On another mission, he also sank an enemy merchant ship by scoring a direct hit to its stern with a skipped bomb. With 19 victories to his credit, Vraciu remained the top Navy ace for three months. Sent home for war bond tours, Vraciu hurriedly returned to the Pacific theater after several months and was assigned to VF-20 aboard the USS Lexington. However, on his second combat sortie in December 1944, he was shot down by antiaircraft fire over the Philippines only to picked up by friendly guerrillas.
Five weeks later, he marched into an American camp, sporting a Japanese saber and leading a band of 180 Filipino guerrillas. His aerial combat over, he was known as “Grumman’s best customer” after service on six carriers (two of which were torpedoed), and surviving two ditchings and two parachute jumps. He was next assigned to the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, where he evaluated the performance of American and captured enemy aircraft. While commanding jet fighter squadron VF-51, Vraciu won the High Individual Air-to-Air Competition in the 1957 Air Weapons Meet, out shooting all Naval and Marine Corps pilots. He is a past president of the American Fighter Aces Association and has been inducted into the Carrier Aviation Hall of Fame as well as the American Combat Airmen Hall of Fame. Vraciu retired in 1964 with the rank of Commander and moved to Danville, California where he worked with Wells Fargo Bank. His life and career were chronicled in Ray Boomhower’s 2010 book “Fighter Pilot: The World War II Career of Alex Vraciu.” Vraciu died on January 29, 2015 at the age of 96. Commander Vraciu was selected as an inaugural eagle of the Air Command and Staff College’s Gathering of Eagles in 1986, and subsequently honored in 1994 and 2004, respectively.