Neel Kearby was a P-47 pilot in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and the commanding officer of the 348th Fighter Group. Before his death in combat in 1944, he scored 22 aerial victories and won the Medal of Honor, one of only three USAAF fighter pilots (and the only P-47 pilot) in the Pacific Theater to do so.
Before Neel Kearby, a native of Texas, joined the war with the 348th FG, he was assigned to the Panama Canal Zone, flying patrols in P-39 fighters. He was one of the first pilots of the group to be checked out in the P-47 Thunderbolt, and was immediately impressed with it, convinced that the large and powerful fighter was superior to any Axis plane. He, along with the rest of the fighter group, arrived in Australia in June 1943. The P-38 Lightning had been the premier Allied fighter in the area for close to a year, and the Lightning pilots looked down on the stubby, heavy Thunderbolt. The story goes that Kearby himself proved the P-47’s fighting prowess in a mock dogfight with a P-38. Operationally, however, the P-47s were still handicapped by their relatively short range, though this was alleviated partially by new external tanks.
Kearby opened his score on September 4, 1943 with a G4M “Betty” bomber and a Ki-43 “Oscar”, and followed this up ten days later by shooting down another twin-engined bomber, a Ki-46 “Dinah”. On September 23, he was promoted to full colonel, but October 11 turned out to be Kearby’s biggest day ever. Kearby led four P-47s on a fighter sweep over the Japanese base at Wewak, New Guinea, and ran into 40 Japanese Army fighters. The ensuing combat lasted close to an hour, and when it was over, Colonel Kearby had shot down six fighters (four Oscars and two Ki-61 “Tonys”). Two other pilots had downed three Tonys between them for a total of nine Japanese fighters splashed without so much as a scratch on any of the Thunderbolts. This made Kearby the first P-47 ace of the Pacific Theater, and set an Army Air Corps record for most victories in a single mission (The American record is nine, set a year later by Navy ace David McCampbell). Upon hearing of this one-sided victory, General George Kenney, head of American Army air forces in the Pacific, recommended Neel Kearby for the Congressional Medal of Honor, which was presented to him by General Douglas MacArthur himself in January 1944. It was the first time in World War II that the MOH had been awarded to an Army Air Corps fighter pilot.
Despite its weight, its clumsiness at low altitudes, and its slow rate of climb, the Thunderbolt could be deadly when tactically deployed. Kearby would leave it to lighter, more nimble fighters to dog-fight at low altitudes. Proper use of the Thunderbolt meant free-roving flights at high altitude, where they were designed to fly, and where they could track enemy formations unseen. When the moment came for combat the Thunderbolt's unequalled diving speed would put its guns within range of destroying that formation, long before the enemy even knew American pilots had spotted them. 
By this time, Kearby had become one of the top scoring pilots in the theater, having downed a Ki-21 bomber and a Zero on January 3 for his 18th and 19th victories. He was kicked upstairs to desk duty at Fighter Command Headquarters for the theater, partly to keep him out of combat. Kenney was well aware of the good publicity of the exploits of a top-scoring ace, but he was equally aware of the bad publicity if that ace got himself killed. Kearby was highly unsatisfied with his new duty, and took every opportunity to fly again. Kenney allowed this, but kept him restricted to two combat flights per week or less (emphasis on the “or less”) and further told him that if he scored a kill on one of these flights, he was to immediately break off and leave the action. Kearby scored a double on January 9, raising his score to 21 and tying him for the lead with P-38 pilot Richard Bong. The magic number was 26 victories, the score of the top American ace of World War I, Eddie Rickenbacker. The first Army Air Corps pilot to break the record would assure his place in the history books. On February 15, Bong scored his 22nd victory, a Tony, making Kearby even more eager to return to the fight. On March 5, Bong scored again, and 24 hours later, Kearby was in the air.
Kearby led two other veteran pilots on another fighter sweep near Wewak. There are two different versions of what happened next. One version is that they came across three bombers (identified at the time as G3M “Nells” but more likely Ki-48 “Lilys”). Each pilot flamed one, but an Oscar came in behind Kearby and shot him down with a long burst to the cockpit. One of Kearby’s wingmen, William D. Dunham, downed the Oscar, but the damage was done. The other version is that they ran into fifteen Japanese aircraft, and attacked. Kearby immediately downed one, and contrary to General Kenney’s order, went back to get another, but was jumped by three Zeros and shot down. Both stories agree on the important details, however: on March 6, 1944, Colonel Neal Kearby was shot down and killed after scoring his 22nd victory. His score remained the highest of any P-47 pilot in the Pacific Theater.
References and Notes
- Col. Kearby's record would later be broken within the USAAF as well, when P-51 pilot William Shomo downed seven Japanese planes in a six-minute fight over the Philippines in January of 1945.
- Mustang and Thunderbolt Aces of the Pacific and CBI, by John Stanaway, Osprey Publishing, 1999
- Aces, by William Yenne, Berkeley Books, 2000
- Kearby’s Thunderbolts: The 348th Fighter Group in World War II, by John Stanaway, Schiffer Publishing, 1977