Of the 92 Americans who earned the Medal of Honor for uncommon valor in air actions, nearly half paid for it with their lives.
It might have been the most peculiar aerial combat in American history: a noncommissioned naval aviator in an Italian flying boat versus land-based Austro-Hungarian fighters. But that was the situation facing Charles Hammann on August 21, 1918.
The 26-year-old Marylander had fetched up in Italy, then allied with the United States, at the Porto Corsini naval air station on the Adriatic Sea. That day, flying single-seat Macchi M.5 flying boat fighters, he and four other Americans escorted a lone bomber to Pola Harbor, Austria. Engaged by four Phönix D.Is, they became separated and one made a water landing. Hammann risked his aircraft and himself to pick up his friend, Ensign George Ludlow, who climbed aboard and straddled the fuselage for the 60-mile flight to base.
Chuck Hammann survived the war, only to die in a Stateside crash in June 1919. He received the Medal of Honor the following year, retroactively becoming the first of 92 American fliers to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor for action “in aerial flight.”
From the Civil War through 2017, 3,499 individuals have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Fewer than 10 percent of those medals since World War I have gone to airmen, with more than half (53) awarded during World War II and 20 for bravery in Southeast Asia. Over the past 100 years, 45 percent of aviation medals for in-flight actions were posthumous.
Each service branch presents its own specific version of the medal. The Marine Corps and Coast Guard receive the Navy medal, while Army and Air Force personnel received the Army medal in both world wars and Korea. The Air Force established its own Medal of Honor in 1965.
Not all aviation Medals of Honor were presented for aerial valor. Eighteen others were aviation-related, awarded to POWs or for lifesaving actions in or around nonflying aircraft. Undoubtedly the most famous example was Lieutenant Thomas Hudner’s Korean War effort to save a downed squadron mate by belly-landing his F4U-4 Corsair near the Chosin Reservoir in 1950 (see “Rescuing the Frozen Chosen,” March 2017).
The best-known WWI Medal of Honor recipients were Captain Edward Rickenbacker and 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, Spad XIII pilots during 1918. Though both their actions followed Hammann’s, his delayed presentation meant the Army pilots received far more attention. Luke, a 21-year-old Arizonan, was killed in a spectacular balloon-busting mission in September, days after Rickenbacker’s unwitnessed solo flight in which he claimed two victories. By war’s end Rickenbacker was credited with 26 victories, but half were cited as “out of control,” including a “Fokker last seen in vertical bank.” Five were observation balloons, possibly two being grounded. Nonetheless, 26 became the American yardstick for future fighter greatness.
On seven occasions two members of the same aircrew received the medal. The first two instances involved Liberty-engine DH-4 crews, including repeated missions to resupply the surrounded “Lost Battalion” on October 6, 1918. Lieutenants Erwin Bleckley and Harold Goettler of the 50th Aero Squadron braved intense groundfire over the Argonne Forest to drop critically needed food and ammunition to the embattled doughboys. Frustrated at results from higher altitudes, the fliers descended well within range of German machine guns, which riddled the lumbering “Liberty.” Both men were hit repeatedly, and though Bleckley survived their crash landing, both died of their wounds. Their Distinguished Service Crosses were upgraded to Medals of Honor in 1922. Also in October 1918, two Marine Corps pilots earned the medal while serving with the 1st Marine Aviation Force, attached to the U.S. Navy’s Northern Bombing Group in Flanders. Lieutenant Ralph Talbot and Corporal Robert G. Robinson flew two notable missions over France and Belgium, their formations intercepted by Fokker and Pfalz fighters. The flying leathernecks claimed victories in both combats, but on the 14th they were badly shot up. Robinson was severely wounded, requiring a forced landing near an advanced hospital. He survived, but Talbot died in an accident two weeks later.
Between the world wars, six civilian and military airmen received Medals of Honor due to vagaries of officialdom. Certainly the best known was Charles Lindbergh, whose May 1927 solo transatlantic flight earned him a Medal of Honor. Though he retained an Army reserve commission, the “Lone Eagle” was technically ineligible for the medal because the Army required combat action.
A controversial citation went to two naval aviators, Commander Richard Byrd and Chief Machinist Floyd Bennett, for their unwitnessed flight over the North Pole a year before Lindbergh’s epic crossing. At the time the Navy medal was authorized for noncombat events, but their claim was never substantiated, although their Fokker trimotor was capable of the feat.
The only Medal of Honor combat action by an interwar pilot was that of Marine Lieutenant Christian Schilt, who repeatedly flew his Vought O2U in and out of an embattled Nicaraguan town during three days in January 1928. Supporting fellow leathernecks in one of the region’s “banana wars,” Schilt expertly landed and took off from a crowded street, delivering supplies and evacuating wounded.
The Army’s first flying Medal of Honor of WWII went to Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle for leading the carrier-launched raid by 16 B-25 Mitchells against Japan in April 1942. Doolittle was already well known for his prewar racing exploits, but the other recipients arose from relative obscurity.
Excepting heavy bomber crews, more Grumman F4F pilots received Medals of Honor than those flying any other type. Seven Marines and a Navy pilot earned the distinction piloting Wildcats, beginning with Captain Henry Elrod of VMF-211 for his defense of Wake Island in December 1941. After his aerial combat, which included sinking a Japanese destroyer, Elrod died in subsequent ground fighting.
The next Wildcat exponent was Lt. (j.g.) Edward “Butch” O’Hare, who defended his aircraft carrier, USS Lexington, against land-based bombers off Rabaul, New Britain, in February 1942. Credited with five Mitsubishi G4M1s in one mission (he actually downed four), O’Hare received carrier aviation’s first Medal of Honor.
The Guadalcanal campaign produced a crop of Wildcat aces, including six Marine medal recipients. The originals were “plankowners” in the island’s “Cactus Air Force,” beginning with tough, square-jawed Major John L. Smith, who led the first fighter squadron ashore in August 1942. With 19 victories, he was also the first major American ace of the war.
Captain Joe Foss was the first of the second-generation American aces to match Rickenbacker’s 26-victory benchmark from WWI. (In fact, due to more stringent requirements for awarding victories, “Captain Eddie’s” equivalent WWII score would have been 11.33.) Foss, who recorded some of the highest gunnery scores seen before the war, entered combat with 1,400 hours in his logbook, and he repeatedly exploited his experience. He was the Corps’ first ace in a day, scoring five kills in two sorties on September 25, 1942. Foss absorbed the aggressive philosophy of his mentor, Lt. Col. Harold W. Bauer, a posthumous medal recipient who stood conventional wisdom on its head by saying, “When you see Zeros, dogfight them.” Foss added, “There’s only two speeds in combat: full speed and no speed.”
Leading the second F4F squadron ashore at Guadalcanal was Major Robert E. Galer, whose soft-spoken demeanor paced his lieutenants in VMF-224. As the only Marine landing signal officer in Hawaii while serving with VMF-211, he had missed the squadron’s Wake Island tour. That fortunate coincidence launched him on the road to Cactus, where he became a double ace honored for consistently excellent leadership. Like many Medal of Honor men, he insisted, “I was just doing my job, nothing more. I wear the medal for those who aren’t here.”
Toward the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, a 21-year-old second lieutenant took his place among the veterans. On January 30, 1943, during a strike escort, Jefferson J. DeBlanc tied into a mixed bag of Japanese army and navy aircraft, claiming five kills before ringing up the for-sale sign on his battered Grumman. He bailed out to spend time with a coastwatcher, who traded the Marine for a sack of rice. “I’m one of the few human beings who knows his exact true value,” DeBlanc quipped.
Originally Galer and DeBlanc received Navy Crosses, but both were upgraded—Galer’s during the war and DeBlanc’s afterward, when he was recalled to uniform for the award ceremony.
The last Medal of Honor ace at Guadalcanal was another youngster, 22-year-old 1st Lt. James E. Swett of VMF-221. Opposing one of the largest air raids ever launched against Cactus, in April 1943, Swett latched onto a string of Aichi D3A1 dive bombers and splashed seven in succession. Pulling off to check battle damage, he pursued an eighth and expended the last of his ammunition into it. Then he ditched his shot-up Wildcat in the sound north of Guadalcanal, where a sailor expressed doubt as to the pilot’s origin. Swett removed all doubt with some explicit San Francisco vocabulary. As he recalled, “The sailor said, ‘Oh, one of them loudmouth Marines!’”
Swett remained in combat, transitioning to F4Us and adding to his tally. He finished his war flying from Bunker Hill, becoming a triple ace before the carrier sustained massive kamikaze damage in 1945.
Throughout the war, the Army Air Forces focused primarily on heavy bombardment, as evidenced by its Medal of Honor count: 30 awarded to bomber crewmen (17 in B-17s) versus six to fighter pilots, and only two for action against the Western Axis. Certainly the most decorated American aircrew of all time was the B-17E of Captain Jay Zeamer Jr. and bombardier Lieutenant Joseph R. Sarnoski. A fellow pilot said Zeamer “was the most relaxed man in an airplane I ever knew. Nothing ever seemed to bother him. No emergency could shake him. He was the kind of a guy that everyone took to.”
Flying a recon mission over Bougainville in the Solomon Islands in June 1943, they were attacked by eight Mitsubishi A6M3 Zeros. Sarnoski, mortally wounded, shrugged off first aid to continue firing at the interceptors from the B-17’s nose. More than 100 shards of metal tore into Zeamer, shattering his feet and paralyzing his legs. “I never felt so much pain in my life,” he recalled. “One of the shells exploded at my feet. It ripped off my rudder pedals, tore gobs of flesh from my legs and shattered my left knee. Blood from my ruptured wrist was spurting across my lap every time my heart pumped.”
After copilot Lieutenant John Britton landed the Flying Fortress at New Guinea, medics said that Zeamer had lost nearly half his blood, and he barely escaped a leg amputation. Sarnoski died and four others were wounded. Eventually “Old 666” received an unheard-of two Medals of Honor and seven Distinguished Service Crosses.
Of the 30 AAF bomber crewmen awarded the medal, 21 were pilots or copilots. Valiant team efforts featured in three events, with Lt. Col. Addison Baker and copilot Major John L. Jerstad of the 93rd Bomb Group earning posthumous medals in the spectacular low-level attack on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, on August 1, 1943. Despite their B-24D Liberator streaming flames, they maintained their place at the head of the formation until they crashed.
During the Eighth Air Force’s “Big Week” offensive in February 1944, Luftwaffe fighters killed the pilot of a 351st Bomb Group B-17 and knocked the copilot unconscious. Navigator Lieutenant Walter Truemper, assisted by gunner Sergeant Archibald Mathies, tried to land the crippled Fortress back at base, but crashed on their third attempt.
That November the B-17 crew of Lieutenants Donald J. Gott and William E. Metzger Jr. flew with the 452nd Group to eastern France. Flak knocked one engine off the wing, crippled another and critically wounded the radioman, who could not bail out. The two pilots—ages 22 and 21—gamely tried a controlled landing, but their bomber smashed into trees and exploded on impact.
Only two fighter pilots received the Medal of Honor flying against the Luftwaffe: Major James Howard of the Ninth Air Force over Germany and Lieutenant Raymond Knight of the Twelfth in Italy.
During the three-year “Forgotten War” in Korea, six pilots received Medals of Honor; five died in the process. In August 1950, shortly after North Korea invaded the south, Major Louis Sebille—a B-26 Marauder pilot during WWII—ignored hits from AA fire that crippled his F-51D Mustang’s engine. Calling, “I’ll never be able to make it back,” he reversed course and dived at a truck. Firing throughout his strafing run, he flew into the target. His wingmen thought he may have failed to pull up because he was disabled, but absent full knowledge, the Air Force decorated the dedicated pilot for extreme heroism.
A year later Captain John S. Walmsley Jr. flew a hazardous night interdiction mission. Making repeated passes through heavy gunfire to illuminate the target area, his A-26 Invader took crippling hits that set it afire. Walmsley and two of his three crewmen died in the ensuing crash, but he received the 3rd Bomb Wing’s second Medal of Honor.
Two other fighter pilots received medals in Korea. The best known was Major George A. Davis, one of only seven Americans to become aces in two wars. He volunteered to extend his tour with the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, becoming the leading scorer in 1952 by running his Korean tally to 14. Two were credited to him on his last mission before a Chinese MiG-15 destroyed his F-86 Sabre (see “Who Shot Down Major Davis?,”).
Much like Louis Sebille, Major Charles J. Loring Jr. pressed his F-80 Shooting Star to extreme range in November 1952. Despite several hits from AA fire, he declined to divert to nearby safe airspace and tracked straight down the “chute” into a Chinese artillery position.
After Lieutenant Hudner’s valiant but unsuccessful effort to save Lt. (j.g.) Jesse Brown, the other naval aviation medal went to a helicopter pilot—the first to a chopper driver. In July 1951, Lt. (j.g.) John Koelsch flew his Sikorsky HO3S-1 into the teeth of enemy groundfire to rescue a downed F4U pilot, but his helo was shot down. With his aircrewman and the Marine Corsair pilot, Koelsch evaded the enemy for nine days before being captured. He died in captivity, an inspiration to his fellow POWs.
Vietnam was called the “Helicopter War” for good reason. Despite the attention focused on the strategic bombing missions in the North near Hanoi and Haiphong, the helo came of age in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Of 20 medals awarded for in-flight action in Southeast Asia between 1965 and 1972, 13 went to chopper pilots and crewmen. Three others were presented for aviation-related events, plus three fliers were recognized for valor as POWs.
Congress provides for amending records after military regulations have lapsed, though sometimes the waivers occur a century or more afterward—often for political reasons. Theodore Roosevelt’s medal from the Spanish-American War is a prime example. However, retroactive medals were justifiably awarded to Army fliers well after their Southeast Asia actions. Two involved one of the first major battles in Vietnam, the Landing Zone X-Ray action in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. For repeated supply runs and medical evacuation, 6-foot-6 Captain Edward “Too Tall” Freeman of the Air Cavalry earned heartfelt admiration for ignoring a no-fly order against heavy enemy gunfire. Freeman received a Distinguished Flying Cross, but his superiors believed he deserved far more. Decades passed, and eventually justice was done when the retired Major Freeman was awarded the medal in 2001. His squadron mate, Major Bruce Crandall, received belated recognition six years later.
Two other retroactive presentations have gone to Army aviators. In 2002 Captain John E. Swanson, an OH-6 “Loach” pilot of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), was posthumously decorated for a 1971 action in Cambodia. Then in 2016 retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles was belatedly recognized for his 1967 heroism as a UH-1 “Huey” pilot.
Among the fast movers—fixed-wing jets—suppression of enemy defenses loomed large. Both F-105 Thunderchief medals went to “Wild Weasels” who performed above and beyond to prevent North Vietnam’s surface-to-air missiles from harming other “Thuds.” Majors Merlyn Dethlefsen and Leo Thorsness of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing earned their awards in 1967, and while both downed MiGs, the anti-SAM mission took precedence. Weeks later Thorsness survived a 600-knot ejection into six years of brutal captivity.
The other SAM hunter was Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Estocin, an A-4 Skyhawk pilot off Ticonderoga. Extremely aggressive, Estocin pursued SAMs to the limit of his fuel and ordnance, being cited for two spectacular “Iron Hand” missions. He was killed while covering a strike near Haiphong in April 1967, the same month Thorsness was captured. Estocin’s fighter escort, Lt. Cmdr. John Nichols, recalled: “Mike’s aggressiveness and airmanship were unquestioned. He got the job done but he wanted more. We had kept the SAMs down while the strike went in and made a safe getaway. As soon as the bombers cleared the beach, our job was done….Mike wasn’t satisfied with merely suppressing the missiles. He wanted to shoot those people, just as he’d done six days before. But that was an inherent risk in playing the electronic game of tag over North Vietnam. The desire to win could overshadow one’s sense of preservation, and it cost us some of our best men.”
Another Skyhawk pilot, Commander James B. Stockdale, led Oriskany’s air wing in 1965. Downed by groundfire, he became the senior POW in Hanoi and provided exceptional leadership in what he called the “socialist extortion chamber.” Additional medals went to Air Force prisoners Major Bud Day and Captain Lance Sijan, the latter posthumously.
Other aircraft in Vietnam Medal of Honor actions covered the spectrum: from forward air controllers in O-1 “Bird Dogs” to A-1 Skyraiders, an OV-1 Mohawk, a C-123 Provider transport and an AC-47 gunship.
Despite its status as the longest conflict in American history, the ongoing “War on Terror” has so far produced no aviation Medals of Honor. But whatever their era or aircraft, the Medal of Honor airmen have provided an example for their 21st century heirs to follow.
Prolific writer and historian Barrett Tillman has logged hundreds of hours in historic aircraft. He is the author of Above and Beyond: The Aviation Medals of Honor, which is recommended for further reading.