Alexander Vraciu was born in East Chicago, Indiana, and attended DePauw University on a scholarship where he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training program. He started naval flight training in late 1941, winning his wings in August, 1942. He qualified as a carrier pilot on the USS Wolverine, a converted Great Lakes steamer. His first combat unit was VF-3 (later redesignated VF-6) where he spent 5 months as wingman to Ed "Butch" O'Hare and shot down his first Japanese plane, a Zero over Wake Island in October 1943. He soon downed another Betty over Tarawa, and "made ace" on January 29, 1944 when he got three more Bettys over Kwajalein.
His next combat occurred on February 16 (still with the Intrepid's VF-6) on a strike at Truk and neighboring airfields at Moen, Eten, and Param Islands. The day started with a large fighter sweep, 72 Hellcats, over the Jap bases. Vraciu arrived over Moen at 13,000 foot altitude just before sunrise. Amidst the anti-aircraft fire, the Hellcats began diving toward the airstrips for their strafing runs. Looking all around, Lt. Vraciu spotted some Zeros above and to port, which he swung toward and attacked. Using the superiority maneuverability of the Hellcat at high speeds (over 250 knots), he successfully gained altitude on the Zeros and chased them into clouds and onto the deck. During this action he hit and set afire 3 Zeros, which hit the water inside Truk atoll. He then got another after a bit of cat-and-mouse in a cloud. The afternoon saw little air-to-air action, as Vraciu and the other Hellcat pilots escorted the bombers and torpedo planes on their runs. That evening, when the planes had returned, the Intrepid was hit by a torpedo and was withdrawn from combat for repairs.
He was then assigned to VF-16, and scored two more kills when he downed two Zeros in another raid on Truk on April 29, 1944. His twelfth victory was a Betty 'snooper' that he downed over Saipan on June 12. On June 14, he didn't add to his "air-to-air" wins, but he achieved the spectacular feat of sinking a Japanese merchant ship with a direct hit on its stern!
On June 19, 1944 during what came to be known as the Marianas "Turkey Shoot", he was assigned to CAP over the US fleet, and engaged an attacking Jap air group about 25 miles west of the USS Lexington. He shot down a remarkable 6 Japanese 'Judy' dive bombers in just eight minutes using only 360 rounds of ammunition.
In that frenetic interception, Lt. Vraciu even outperformed top ace David McCampbell, weaving his way through the enemy formation to pick off six enemy aircraft. Vraciu downed his initial quarry from a distance of only 200 feet and quickly reacted to avoid damage from the dive bomber's debris. He then crept toward a pair of dive bombers and shot down the trailing Judy before splashing the lead plane. Every minute brought the action continuously closer to Lexington, which meant that not only was the carrier in danger, but Vraciu and other American pilots would have to fly directly into their own ships' anti-aircraft fire to chase attacking enemy planes.
Vraciu scanned the skies, which by now were dotted with speeding Hellcats, plunging enemy planes, and hundreds of lethal bursts of anti-aircraft fire. He warned Lexington: "Don't see how we can possibly shoot 'em all down. Too many!" But he nevertheless chased after, and downed, a fourth dive bomber. Three other Judys zoomed into view as they began their final runs on ships below, and Vraciu followed them. He quickly downed the first but was forced into a perilous vertical dive to stop the second before it dropped its bomb on a destroyer. With anti-aircraft fire intensifying, Vraciu caught up to the enemy plane and destroyed it, then pulled out of his dive to avoid crashing into the water. Battleship anti-aircraft fire downed the final enemy dive bomber.
Vraciu headed back to Lexington, where he was almost killed by his own ship's fire. Shouting into his radio that he was an American, Vraciu finally landed. As he walked away from his plane, a tired Vraciu glanced toward Admiral Mitscher on the bridge and smiling widely, held up six fingers to indicate his success, a scene captured in a well-known photograph. His nineteenth (and last) victory came the next day when he got another Zeke.
He was referred to as "Grumman's Best Customer" after surviving two carriers being torpedoed, two ditchings and two parachute jumps. In December, 1944, he was shot down on a raid over Manila's Clark Field, and hid out with Filipino guerrillas for five weeks, before meeting up with American forces. Alex Vraciu ended WWII as the U.S. Navy's fourth-ranking ace with 19 enemy aircraft shot down plus 21 more destroyed on the ground. He spent the last few months of the war as a test pilot at the Navy's Patuxent River facility. After the war, he commanded VF-51.
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