Thursday, August 20, 2015
Fritz Payne, the ace of Guadalcanal
His Grumman F4F Wildcat was not as good as the Zero. In fact the Pentagon would replace it the next year and make the F4F fighter an escort for carriers. And he had no combat experience, having made his first solo flight at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., just seven years earlier on July 1, 1935.
But in the U.S. military's first land confrontation with Imperial Japan in the Battle of Guadalcanal, Fritz Payne brought down six enemy planes, helping the Americans win a decisive victory in a battle that took six months to finish. The Japanese never gave up, a determination that cost more lives than it should.
Born on July 31, 1911, in Elmira New York, Frederick Rounsville Payne Jr., entered the Naval Academy in 1930. His father had served in the Navy in the Spanish-American War and in World War I. Payne transferred to the University of Arizona after two years. Upon graduation in January 1935, Payne joined the Marines.
Years later, Payne recalled how he got into a downsized peacetime military: "At that time, the Navy cadet program was full. My father said, 'You're a college graduate, go to the recruiting office and tell them you'd like to join the Marine Corps'."
He became an officer. In July 1936, he attended Naval Flight School in Pensacola, Florida. The trainers deserve congratulations, for when the war broke out, Fritz Payne was ready.
He was stationed at Quantico, Virginia, when the Japanese conducted a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Payne and his unit went immediately to the Pacific Theater aboard the aircraft carrier Saratoga, named for a major victory in the Revolutionary War.
Payne shared his first hit on September 14, 1942, when he and another pilot took down a twin-engine bomber. He followed that with a solo hit on September 28, 1942, and four more before between October 18 and October 23, 1942. His rank at the time was the one just above captain. Yes, Major Payne lived up to his name.
Guadalcanal was a particularly bloody battle in which allied forces killed 31,000 of the 36,200 Japanese forces on the ground when the battle began. Allied losses included 7,100 dead and 7,789 wounded.
He received the Navy Cross for his efforts. The citation read, "Throughout that strenuous period when the island airfield was under constant bombardment and our precarious ground positions were menaced by the desperate counter thrusts of a fanatical foe, Major Payne repeatedly patrolled hostile territory and intercepted enemy bombing flights. In five vigorous fights against tremendous odds, (he) shot down a total of six Japanese planes."
His other military decorations include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit with Combat V, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal with four Gold Stars.
The Grumman F4F Wildcat was a tough nut to crack. Japanese ace Saburō Sakai, who downed 28 allied planes, wrote in his memoir, "I had full confidence in my ability to destroy the Grumman and decided to finish off the enemy fighter with only my 7.7 mm machine guns. I turned the 20 mm cannon switch to the off position, and closed in. For some strange reason, even after I had poured about five or six hundred rounds of ammunition directly into the Grumman, the airplane did not fall, but kept on flying. I thought this very odd — it had never happened before — and closed the distance between the two airplanes until I could almost reach out and touch the Grumman. To my surprise, the Grumman's rudder and tail were torn to shreds, looking like an old torn piece of rag. With his plane in such condition, no wonder the pilot was unable to continue fighting! A Zero which had taken that many bullets would have been a ball of fire by now."
The pilots were as tough as the plane.
Payne's experience as a combat pilot made him a good choice as a commander. He took on a variety of commands and assignments before rising to commander of Marine Air Group 23.
After the war. Payne remained on active duty with assignments that included the Korean War and atomic testing. On August 1, 1958, Payne retired from the military as a brigadier general. In 1976, he retired from Southern California Edison, after forming and running a helicopter division to monitor and inspect power lines from the air. He also had helped plan the construction of the San Onofre nuclear power plant.
He and his wife, Dorothy, who died in 2011, retired to Rancho Mirage, California, where he lived in relative obscurity until his 100th birthday, when people realized he was the oldest of the 77 living American aces. Over the years, the military recognized 1,442 confirmed aces, pilots who downed five or more aircraft in combat. The Palm Springs Air Museum held a birthday party for him and 100 people showed up. So many people wanted to be photographed with him that he joked, “You know, I'm going to get a sunburn from flash bulbs.”
However, he did not like to boast about his status as an ace because it came at the cost of the lives of others. Such is war.
His service also was recognized when Congress awarded Congressional Gold Medals to all 1,442 aces in May 2015.
On August 6, 2015, Payne died a week after Birthday No. 104. A hero. A man who couldn't get in the Navy, so he joined the Marines.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.