DAYTON, Ohio — Republic P-47D “Fiery Ginger” in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Col. Neel E. Kearby, a Medal of Honor recipient, developed aggressive tactics that exploited the strengths of the P-47 Thunderbolt. With 22 victories, he became the highest-scoring Thunderbolt pilot in the Pacific Theater. Moreover, Kearby’s tactics as commander of the first P-47 unit in the Pacific Theater led to considerable success for his 348th Fighter Group.
Before it became a proven weapon, many considered the heavy Thunderbolt unsuitable for use against nimble Japanese aircraft. Since the P-47 could not maneuver with the enemy at low altitude, Kearby would lead his group into hostile territory at high altitude where the Thunderbolt’s turbosupercharged engine gave it an advantage. Upon sighting the enemy below, Kearby and his pilots made high-speed attacks exploiting the P-47s remarkable diving ability. The energy built up in the dive allowed them to quickly climb back up to altitude for another diving pass. Japanese pilots came to fear attacks from the 348th Fighter Group because they came with little warning, and the Thunderbolt’s eight .50-cal. machine guns literally blew their lightly built aircraft out of the sky.
In November 1943, with 12 victories to his credit, Kearby was transferred to the headquarters of the 5th Air Force Fighter Command. Despite his assignment to administrative duties, Kearby still wanted to be in combat. He flew missions whenever he could, and his victory tally continued to rise.
A mission near Wewak on March 5, 1944, was Kearby’s last. While attacking a Japanese formation, a Ki-43 “Oscar” fighter pilot momentarily gained position on him. Hit by heavy machine gun fire, his Thunderbolt named Fiery Ginger IV crashed, and Kearby was killed.
Col. Neel E. Kearby Medal of Honor
Col. Neel E. Kearby, a particularly aggressive fighter pilot and motivating leader, often initiated successful flights against superior numbers. On Oct. 11, 1943, Kearby led three of his pilots against nearly 50 Japanese aircraft near Wewak. Tearing through the enemy formation, Kearby shot down six Japanese aircraft during the engagement. For his skill and daring, Kearby received the Medal of Honor.
Fiery Ginger IV Vertical Fin
On display in Fiery Ginger IV’s vertical fin. Some of the red, yellow and blue stripes remain on the top of the tail, even after decades in tropical weather. Each stripe represented one of the colors of the 348th Fighter Group’s three squadrons. Though not visible today, the unpainted metal areas were once covered in white paint, a common USAAF recognition marking used in the Southwest Pacific.
The holes in the tail were made by the Japanese fighter that shot Kearby down. After the war, the wreckage of the aircraft lay undisturbed and forgotten until the 1990s. This artifact came to the museum in 2004.