On March 5, 1944, in the Pacific, US fighter aces are jockeying for position, trying to beat a victory count of a record held since World War I. Eddy Rickenbacker’s 26 victories have never been beaten.
Neel Kearby has 21 victories and he got his eye on Rickenbacker’s record. He is on his P-47 Thunderbolt, the “Fiery Ginger IV,” named after his wife. Kearby pulled together a fighter sweep with two of his friends, Bill Dunham and Sam Blair.
The trio climbed up to 22,000 feet along the coast of Papua New Guinea. Then, they spotted three bombers coming 500 ft above the sea, Ki-48s or ‘Lily’ bombers.
The three men each targeted a bomber, surprising the enemy with the incredible firepower of 24 machine guns going off at once.
Dunham and Blair shot down the Japanese bombers they targeted. However, Kearby didn’t manage to down his target immediately. A lone Ki-43 Oscar spotted Kearby and filled his P-47 with lead. Dunham spotted this and raced to help his friend. He managed to take down the Oscar, but he was already too late.
Searching for Kearby over land and sea, the two men soon found themselves low on fuel and had to give up on the search.
Nine months later, Bill Dunham was flying his P-47D over the Philippine Sea, and after spotting and downing a Ki-43 Oscar, he saw a Japanese pilot bail out. Bill pulled his plane around and lined up on the enemy, slowly descending on the parachute.
Bill would later tell his family, “It was as if the Lord put his hand on my shoulder and said, Bill, don’t do it.”
He would eventually break off the attack, and spot the pilots bobbing in the waves below. Dunham put his plane into a shallow dive, he went down over the waves. He then opened his canopy and threw his Mae West lifejacket to assist the stricken airman.
Meanwhile, Kearby’s remains were found in the jungle in 194 by an Australian Air Force search team. It was soon found that although he bailed out successfully, he had received bullet wounds either on the aircraft or on his descent by parachute.