Ace pilot’s heroics helped war effort
FRITZ Payne was a World War II fighter ace who left his mark on aviation and wartime history.
Payne shot down six Japanese warplanes during the Battle of Guadalcanal, a bloody, months-long confrontation that helped change the course of the war.
The retired Marine Corps brigadier general was believed to be the oldest surviving US fighter ace, at 104 years old.
Hundreds of people had turned out to honour him last Memorial Day at Palm Springs Air Museum.
“He was an extraordinary guy and we can only hope that we can live up to his and others’ example and carry on in their footsteps and remember what they did,” Fred Bell, the museum’s director, said.
What Payne did between September and October 1942 was take to the skies in an F4F Wildcat and shoot down four Japanese bombers and two fighter planes during a crucial and lengthy battle for control of the Pacific that Allied forces had launched with no clear indication they could win.
“Fritz came along at a time when we were essentially losing the war,” said Bell, adding Payne and others who “stood their ground at Guadalcanal” kept the Japanese from gaining control of the Pacific Ocean from the east coast of Australia to the western United States. The battle marked a turning point in the war’s Pacific theatre.
Payne was honoured with the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals during a long and exemplary military career.
When Congress decided earlier this year to honour all of the nation’s fighter aces with a Gold Medal, its highest civilian honour, Payne was too frail to attend the ceremony in Washington, DC.
Instead, Republican Raul Ruiz, of Palm Springs, brought it to him at the air museum.
“Terrific,” was all he said when it was presented.
“He was a very humble guy,” the museum’s director noted.
The title fighter ace is reserved for those who have shot down at least five enemy aircraft in battle.
Technically, Payne was awarded 5½ kills because he had help from another pilot in downing one plane.
Born Frederick Rounsville Payne Jr, he was the son of a SpanishAmerican War veteran.
He attended the US Naval Academy for two years before completing his college education at the University of Arizona in 1935.
Upon graduation he had hoped to join the navy’s cadet program but learned it was full.
“My father said, ‘You’re a college graduate, go to the recruiting office and tell them you’d like to join the Marine Corps’,” he said in an interview with The Desert Sun in 2010.
So he did, and the Marines made him a second lieutenant.
According to his flight log records, Payne made his first solo flight at US Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, NY, in 1935.
He took off on his solo flight on what soon would become hallowed ground of aviation history. Famous aviators of the era, including Jackie Cochran and Amelia Earhart, flew from Floyd Bennett Field and Howard Hughes used the airfield as the start and finish for his July 1938 record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe.
In addition to Guadalcanal, Payne saw combat at Kwajalein, Hollandia (now Jayapura, Indonesia) and Guam. He was made a lieutenant colonel in 1943 and later served in Korea.
When he retired in 1958 he was a brigadier general with 4720 flight hours. Payne had 25 fixed-wing aircraft and 30 helicopter shipboard landings.
Later he worked for Southern California Edison, managing the utility company’s aircraft operations, which included improving the utility company’s efficiency by introducing the use of helicopters.
After he retired in 1976, he and his wife Dorothy moved to Rancho Mirage in California. He is survived by three children and three grandchildren. His wife died in 2011.