The Last American Aces

Members of an exclusive club tell what it takes to make ace.

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Cmdr. Dean S.“Diz” Laird is the only U.S. Navy ace to have scored combat victories in both the European and the Pacific theaters of World War II.

He was a West Point graduate flying F-86 Sabres in Korea 63 years ago. Last May, as president of the American Fighter Aces Association, retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland received a Congressional Gold Medal from U.S. House and Senate leaders on behalf of the 1,447 U.S. pilots who destroyed at least five enemy aircraft during air-to-air combat.

With aerial warfare shifting away from dogfights and toward the use of unmanned aircraft, it’s possible the American Fighter Aces will never get another member. At the group’s annual convention, held last June in Texas, 10 aces, ranging in age from 73 to 95, renewed friendships at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, where all but one of the following portraits were made.

Lt. Cmdr. Fred L. "Buck" Dungan, USN

The F6F Hellcat was an embodiment of Leroy Grumman’s motto: “Build it strong. Keep it simple. Make it work.” There may not have been another Navy fighter that could have brought Buck Dungan back the day he fought, alone, against 10 Japanese Rufe floatplanes. He shot down four, took a bullet in the shoulder, and made a forced landing on the USS Yorktown. It was his last day of aerial combat.

Brig. Gen. Richard Stephen "Steve" Ritchie, USAF

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(Robert Seale)

“I miss combat flying to this day,” says Ritchie (photographed with an F-4 Phantom at Ellington Airport in Houston), who logged more than 4,000 hours during his Air Force career. As an F-4 pilot in Vietnam, he shot down five MiG-21s. “During the minute or so of a dogfight, most of what we did was due to instinct, reflexes, study of the latest intelligence, and on-the-job training,” he says.

Ritchie is also quick to credit others: “I would not be a fighter ace had it not been for tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel in the entire support community.” Since retiring in 1999, Ritchie has traveled the world, giving lectures on how to succeed.

Lt. Tilman “Tilly” Pool, USN

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(Robert Seale)

After serving with the Navy for 11 years (five years of active duty and six in the reserves), Pool left military life and started a printing business—first in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then in Houston. But his memories of the second world war are still fresh. “The Japanese had made great gains throughout the Pacific and we were trying to survive,” says Pool. “We had no idea when you would run into enemy planes or how many or anything else. Many of the stories of what actually happened out there—much of the good and an awful lot of the bad—will never be told, and that’s the way it should be.”

Col. Dean Caswell, USMC

“No pilot that I knew ever tried to be an ace,” says Caswell. “We only tried real hard to be aggressive so that we wouldn’t get killed. Nor did we ever consider ourselves a hero. Others did, it seems.”

Caswell flew F4U Corsairs as a member of VMF-221, a squadron assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill. After World War II, he continued his service as a U.S. Marine fighter pilot in two combat tours in Korea.

Lt. Cdr. Charles E. "Billy" Watts, USN

Billy Watts and his Hellcat destroyed eight enemy aircraft and shared credit for three others, but that wasn’t what earned him the Navy Cross for “extraordinary heroism” in combat. It was March 19, 1945, and he was staring down at a fleet of Japanese ships and the anti-aircraft fire coming from them. “It was the most intense anti-aircraft fire I ever saw,” he recalls. “When I rolled over—we went in at about 12,000 feet—the sky was black with it. I didn’t think I’d get out of that one.” Many have asked him how he kept diving through the heavy fire to attack the ships. “I really don’t know,” he laughs. “You have to stay focused. And I don’t know how you stay focused. I just know that if you let your mind wander, you’re asking for trouble.”

Cmdr. W. E. "Bill" Hardy, USN

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(Robert Seale)

During his Navy career, Hardy flew the Grumman F6F Hellcat, but it’s not his favorite airplane. He prefers Grumman’s F8F Bearcat. “It beat the P-51 in the Reno Air Races,” he says.

Lt. Gen. Charles G. "Chick" Cleveland, USAF

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(Robert Seale)

“As a junior birdman, I never thought about becoming an ace until I had four confirmed kills,” says Cleveland. “Then I wanted to get that last confirmed victory, which didn’t happen until January 2008, when the Air Force officially recognized one of my two probables in 1952 as a confirmed [kill].” The late confirmation, based on documentation discovered in Russian military archives and eyewitness accounts from Cleveland’s wingman, made him the 40th jet ace of the Korean War.

Like many U.S. Air Force pilots, Cleveland loved flying North American’s F-86 Sabre. “It was the Cadillac of fighters in its day,” he says. “I felt very much at home and in command in the cockpit.”

Cmdr. Dean S. "Diz" Laird, USN

Laird is the only U.S. Navy ace to have scored combat victories in both the European and the Pacific theaters of World War II. “I found both German and Japanese [pilots] to be well trained,” says Laird. “They were worthy opponents. I think that my training had a lot to do with my success. I was also very fortunate to have 20/10 vision, so I was often able to identify aircraft and position myself for aerial engagement and combat before the enemy knew I was there.”

During his childhood in Loomis, California, Laird read pulp magazines, including Flying Aces. “Looking back at it now, I guess I always had dreams of flying fighter aircraft like the guys I read about did,” he says. “I was proud to be in the Navy. But most of all, I enjoyed being able to sleep until six in the morning. On the ranch where I grew up, I had to get up every day at 4 a.m. to milk cows.”