The Last American Aces

Members of an exclusive club tell what it takes to make ace.

Cmdr. Dean S.“Diz” Laird is the only U.S. Navy ace to have scored combat victories in both the European and the Pacific theaters of World War II. (Robert Seale)
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He was a West Point graduate flying F-86 Sabres in Korea 63 years ago. Last May, as president of the American Fighter Aces Association, retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland received a Congressional Gold Medal from U.S. House and Senate leaders on behalf of the 1,447 U.S. pilots who destroyed at least five enemy aircraft during air-to-air combat.

With aerial warfare shifting away from dogfights and toward the use of unmanned aircraft, it’s possible the American Fighter Aces will never get another member. At the group’s annual convention, held last June in Texas, 10 aces, ranging in age from 73 to 95, renewed friendships at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, where all but one of the following portraits were made.

Lt. Cmdr. Fred L. "Buck" Dungan, USN

The F6F Hellcat was an embodiment of Leroy Grumman’s motto: “Build it strong. Keep it simple. Make it work.” There may not have been another Navy fighter that could have brought Buck Dungan back the day he fought, alone, against 10 Japanese Rufe floatplanes. He shot down four, took a bullet in the shoulder, and made a forced landing on the USS Yorktown. It was his last day of aerial combat.

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