David McCampbell was the top-scoring fighter pilot of the United States Navy. During one tour of duty aboard the USS Essex in World War II, he shot down 34 Japanese planes and was awarded the Medal of Honor. He also holds the American record for most planes shot down in a single flight (nine).
David McCampbell was born in Bessamer, Alabama on January 16, 1910, and was appointed to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1929. He joined the swim team, becoming the Eastern Intercollegiate diving champion in 1932, and graduated in 1933 with a degree in marine engineering. Because regular commissions were limited, McCampbell didn’t get an active assignment until June 1934, as an aircraft gunnery observer aboard a destroyer.
After entering flight training in 1937, he became a naval aviator a year later. He spent two years on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger and was then transferred to the USS Wasp, where he served as a Landing Signal Officer until the Wasp was torpedoed and sunk off Guadalcanal. After being rescued, he was reassigned to Florida as an LSO instructor.
In August 1943, he was made the commanding officer of VF-15 (Fighter Squadron 15), flying Hellcats, and in February 1944, he became the commanding officer of Carrier Air Group 15, later known as the “Fabled Fifteen”, which was assigned to the USS Essex. The Essex had just completed an overhaul and was going into action again against the Japanese Empire. David McCampbell flew his first combat mission as commander of the air group on May 19, 1944, a fighter sweep over Marcus Island, and on June 11, he shot down his first enemy plane, a Zero, over Saipan. He scored his second kill on June 13 when he shot down a Japanese bomber while returning from a strike on a convoy. Six days later, in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Essex and the rest of the American fleet around Saipan were attacked by hundreds of Japanese planes in an action that would come to be called, “the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”. Commander McCampbell racked up seven victories and two probables on this day, five of them during morning patrol, one Zero during afternoon patrol, and while returning from afternoon patrol, he and another pilot from his unit came across two more Zeroes attacking a rescue float plane. Each pilot shot down one Zeke, allowing the float plane to continue on its mission.
By October, when the Navy was readying for the invasion of the Philippines, McCampbell had raised his score to 19, tying with Alex Vraciu for top scoring ace of the Navy. On the day of the invasion, McCampbell downed a Dinah and a Nate, becoming the first US Navy pilot, and the first carrier pilot, to score more than twenty aerial victories. Four days later, Japanese naval units responded to the landings, sparking the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of World War II. On the first day of the battle, planes from the Essex sank the battleship Musashi (sister ship to the Yamato, which was damaged in the same action), and McCampbell flew the mission that would win him the Medal of Honor. After launching a strike on the Japanese ships, the Essex detected incoming Japanese planes, and McCampbell led seven Hellcats to defend the ship. He and his wingman, Lieutenant Roy Rushing, went high and ran into 40 Japanese fighters (Zeros and Oscars). A running battle followed, with McCampbell and Rushing making repeated passes on the enemy formation. Before dwindling fuel forced them to return to the Essex, McCampbell shot down nine planes (and probably shot down two others), while Rushing downed six. More importantly, not a single enemy plane got close enough to drop a bomb, the surviving planes turning back in the face of the American fighters. The following day, Commander McCampbell coordinated a strike which sank a Japanese aircraft carrier, a cruiser, and two destroyers.
The Essex concluded her cruise in November. The “Fabled Fifteen” under McCampbell had established an impressive combat record, with 318 enemy aircraft shot down (34 by McCampbell himself) and 296,500 tons of enemy shipping sunk, including the Musashi, three aircraft carriers, and a heavy cruiser. In addition to the Medal of Honor, McCampbell was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Not only was he the top-scoring ace of the U.S. Navy, he holds the American record for most aerial victories in a single tour of duty. If the Essex had been sent into combat again, it’s entirely possible that David McCampbell would have been the top-scoring fighter pilot in United States history.
After the war, McCampbell continued his naval career. His postings included senior naval aviation advisor to the Argentine Navy for three years, executive officer of the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, flight test coordinator at the Naval Air Test Center in Maryland, and captain of the carrier USS Bon Homme Richard. In 1960, he took an assignment at the Pentagon working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in 1964, he retired, after thirty years in the Navy. David McCampbell died on June 30, 1996 at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, after a long illness. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Burke-class destroyer USS McCampbell and the David McCampbell Terminal at the Palm Beach International Airport are both named for him.
- Clash of the Carriers: the True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II, by Barrett Tillman, New American Library, 2005
- Aircraft vs. Aircraft, by Norman Franks, Barnes & Noble Books, 1998
- Aces, by William Yenne, Berkeley Books, 2000
- Biography at Acepilots.com
- Biography at MedalofHonor.com
- David McCampbell at the Warbirds Resource Group
- Hellcat Aces of World War 2, by Barrett Tillman, Osprey Publishing, 1996