On the morning of October 24th, 1944, a crew aboard the USS Essex rushed to prepare David McCampbell’s Hellcat fighter for battle. The plane had not been scheduled to fly that day, but a large force of Japanese planes lurked nearby. Taking off with a fuel tank that was only partially filled, McCampbell led just seven fighters against a group of 60 Japanese aircraft. He returned to the carrier with empty guns and an engine sputtering for gas, but McCampbell was not empty handed. During the course of the battle he had shot down nine Japanese planes.
- In 1943, McCampbell assumed command of Air Group Fifteen, a.k.a. “Fabled Fifteen,” which destroyed more enemy planes and sank more ships than any other air group in the Pacific War.
- McCampbell destroyed 34 airborne enemy planes, the greatest number of enemy planes that an American pilot ever shot down during a single tour of combat duty. McCampbell also destroyed 20 grounded planes.
- Top scoring Naval fighter pilot of World War II and receipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
David McCampbell was born on January 16th, 1910, in Bessemer, Alabama to Andrew Jackson (A.J.) and E. La Valle (Perry) McCampbell. At thirteen he left home to attend the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, and later Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, before being appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929 by Senator P. Trammell of Florida. While at the Naval Academy, David excelled in athletics, becoming A.A.U. Diving Champion – Mid-Atlantic States in 1931 and Eastern Intercollegiate Diving Champion in 1932. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1933 with a B.S. degree in Marine Engineering. The same day, he received an honorable discharge from the Navy due to Congressional legislation limiting officer commissions and was recommissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. For the next year, McCampbell worked for a construction company in Alabama and as an assembly mechanic with Douglas Aircraft Corporation.
On June 14th, 1934, McCampbell received a transfer from the Naval Reserve to the active U.S. Navy. His first assignment was aboard the cruiser USS Portland. In July 1936, he was assigned as Aircraft Gunnery Observer with Scouting Squadron 11. In 1937, McCampbell’s flying career finally got off the ground (literally) at Pensacola Naval Air Station where he reported for flight training. A year later, he earned his designation as a Naval Aviator and received his first flying assignment, a two-year stint with Fighting Squadron 4 aboard the USS Ranger. In 1940, he was transferred to the Air Group of the USS Wasp in the Atlantic Ocean to serve as Landing Signal Officer. The work of a Landing Signal Officer on a carrier was extremely exacting, for the safety and lives of the pilots and crewmen rested upon him. He served as Landing Signal Officer until a Japanese submarine sunk the Wasp on September 15th, 1942 while the Wasp was on a routine patrol south of Guadalcanal.
Next, McCampbell returned home for a rest. He received a promotion to Lieutenant Commander while he served as an instructor of Landing Signal Officers in Melbourne, Florida. But the war was heating up and the Navy needed experienced men to command fighter squadrons. In August of 1943, McCampbell became Commanding Officer of Fighting Squadron 15 where he served from September 1943 until February 1944. He then assumed command of Air Group Fifteen, which came to call itself the “Fabled Fifteen.”
In the spring of 1944, the Fabled Fifteen went to war aboard the USS Essex. McCampbell received command of the entire Essex air group: bombers, fighters, and torpedo planes. He was thirty-four years old and he was finally going to war the way he wanted it: piloting a fighter plane! The Fabled Fifteen, with McCampbell as their leader, slashed a devastating path through the sky all the way to the Philippines before the exhausted fliers went home. During their tour of approximately seven months and more than 20,000 hours of operations, this group destroyed more enemy planes (318 airborne and 348 on the ground) and sank more enemy ships (296,500 tons sunk, and more than a half million tons damaged and/or probably sunk) than any other air group in the Pacific war. Among the major combat ships sunk was the Japanese battleship Musashi, three carriers and a heavy cruiser. The Fabled Fifteen became one of the most highly decorated air groups of the war.
Despite the impressive record of the Fabled Fifteen, McCampbell’s personal record is even more unprecedented. He entered combat on May 19th, 1944, leading a fighter sweep over Marcus Island. He shot down his first Japanese plane on the June 11th, 1944 during air strikes against Japanese positions on the island of Saipan. In the first and second Battles of the Philippine Sea, McCampbell led his fighter planes against a force of eighty Japanese carrier-based aircraft bearing down on the U.S. Fleet on June 19th, 1944. McCampbell personally destroyed seven hostile planes and two probable during this single engagement in which the larger enemy attack force was routed and virtually annihilated. Fighter pilots remember the battle as the famous “Marianas Turkey Shoot.” By September 1944, McCampbell had shot down nineteen Japanese planes and the side of his Hellcat was cluttered with miniature Japanese flags. In October, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, McCampbell, assisted by only one other plane, intercepted and daringly attacked a formation of sixty hostile enemy aircraft approaching American forces. Together they accounted for fifteen downed enemy planes with McCampbell personally shooting down nine enemy planes and two probables, a feat unequaled in the annals of combat aviation. He also completely disorganized the enemy group, forcing the remainder to abandon the attack before a single aircraft could reach the U.S. Fleet.
After almost seven months of service in the Pacific, McCampbell had destroyed 34 airborne enemy planes, the greatest number of enemy planes that an American pilot ever shot down during a single tour of combat duty, as well as 20 planes on the ground. David McCampbell became the top scoring Naval fighter pilot of World War II. As a result of these incredible feats, McCampbell received numerous honors and decorations including the Congressional Medal of Honor which President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally presented to him. McCampbell also received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, Legion of Merit, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After returning home, McCampbell served from March 1945 to January 1947 at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia as Chief of Staff to Commander Fleet Air and as Commander of Carrier Air Groups. His next assignment was to the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, first as a student and then as a member of the staff in the Intelligence Division. Later, he received orders to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he served as the Senior Naval Aviation Advisor to the Argentine Navy from 1948 to January 1951. In February of 1951, McCampbell joined the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt as Executive Officer. From March 1952 until July 1953, he was the Planning Officer on the Staff of Commander Aircraft Atlantic. In the summer of 1953 he assumed command of the Naval Air Technical Training Center at Jacksonville, Florida and a year later became Flight Test Coordinator at the Naval Air Test Center in Maryland. In the years following, McCampbell commanded the USS Severn and USS Bonhomme Richard until he was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C. in 1960. In September 1962 McCampbell became the Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations to the Commander in Chief of Continental Air Defense Command. He remained there until he retired from the Navy in 1964. David McCampbell died in Florida after a lengthy illness on June 30th, 1996.
For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Commander of Air Group 15 and for outstanding courage and valor in the face of great odds as well as leadership above and beyond the call of duty, David McCampbell is enshrined with honor into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
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