Vet of the Day U.S. Army Air Forces Veteran Neel E. Kearby

To a generation of young Americans, the flying aces of World War I inspired many to follow in their footsteps to become fighter pilots.

Neel Earnest Kearby was one of those who grew up captivated by the aces. He joined the Army Air Corps—later renamed the Army Air Forces—after earning a degree in business administration from the University of Texas in Austin in 1937. He completed flight training at Randolph Field in San Antonio. Afterward, he served with two flight squadrons at Selfridge Field, Mich., before receiving command of the 14th Pursuit Squadron in the Panama Canal Zone.

After Panama, Kearby returned to the United States to command the 348th Fighter Group and deployed to the Pacific Theater. In this position, Kearby earned his reputation as a fighter pilot and an aggressive tactician. The 348th Fighter Group was the first unit in the Pacific Theater to fly P-47 Thunderbolts. While many dismissed the P-47 as an unsuitable aircraft to fly against the Japanese, Kearby exploited the P-47’s high altitude and diving capabilities to tremendous success.

On Oct. 11, 1943, the same day he was promoted to colonel, Kearby led a mission to scout enemy bases near Wewak, New Guinea. After his group completed its objective, they spotted a contingent of enemy aircraft and engaged with them despite being outnumbered. Amid the ensuing fight, Kearby shot down three enemy aircraft and two more who were pursuing another pilot in his group.

He destroyed another enemy aircraft before finally retreating into the safety of the clouds. Kearby received a Medal of Honor for his actions and for destroying the most enemy aircraft in a single mission. By November, he had 12 aerial victories.

In the same month, Kearby was set to assume an administrative role at the Fifth Air Force Fighter Command. Never one to give up flying, he made sure he could still fly combat missions in his new role. True to his goals, he continued to fly combat missions and accumulated 22 aerial victories.

On March 5, 1944, Kearby led a fighter sweeper mission near Wewak, New Guinea. He engaged with several Japanese bombers preparing to land. However, he was hit by machine-gun fire during the fight, causing him to crash. His remains were not recovered until 1949. He was buried at Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas, Texas with full military honors.

During his service, Col. Kearby received a Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart and five Air Medals.

We honor his service.

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