The Courier-Mail

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.

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