Alexander Vraciu, the original Top Gun

Alex with his full page story in the 1944 Chicago Tribune
Alex with 1944 Chicago Tribune

On my way back from a day trip to LA, I sat next to a quiet old man who was settling in for the short flight back home to Oakland. I asked him how his day was going and was kind of surprised to hear him say he’s been really busy. He then told me he just got through with his interviews for a segment of the History Channel about WWII fighter pilots.

I put my book down and then prepared to listen to what I knew would be a fascinating tale. At first I had to draw it out of him a bit but once he got going he was full of stories. He was not the bragging type – he told me a little of this, and a little of that about his activities during the war but as the time went on I later realized that I was talking to one of the top aces of the Pacific War.

Alexander Vraciu flew Grumman Hellcats during the war and shot down 19 enemy aircraft over the course of the war and was the fourth-ranking Naval Ace of the war. During this time he served on six separate carriers (two were torpedoed) and was shot down over the Philippines where he parachuted to safety and spent five weeks with the guerrilla forces in the jungle, leading command of 180 of them through Japanese lines to link up with General McArthur’s advancing forces.

Alex came home to Chicago a war hero later taking command of a jet fighter squadron in 1951. As one of the top naval pilots, he was sent a congratulatory message from then Admiral Stump, “delighted to hear that you are top gun in jets” which is the first known use of that phrase.

Despite his age (he’s 88), he was sharp as a tack and you could see his eyes sparkle as he swooped his hands through the air, recounting his famous dogfight where he took out 6 Japanese planes in the space of eight minutes. “It was my personal payback for Pearl,” he said.

I didn’t have it in me to break in and say I’m half-Japanese.

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