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.
Cmdr. Dean S. "Diz" Laird, USN
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. “I found both German and Japanese [pilots] to be well trained,” says Laird. “They were worthy opponents. I think that my training had a lot to do with my success. I was also very fortunate to have 20/10 vision, so I was often able to identify aircraft and position myself for aerial engagement and combat before the enemy knew I was there.”
During his childhood in Loomis, California, Laird read pulp magazines, including Flying Aces. “Looking back at it now, I guess I always had dreams of flying fighter aircraft like the guys I read about did,” he says. “I was proud to be in the Navy. But most of all, I enjoyed being able to sleep until six in the morning. On the ranch where I grew up, I had to get up every day at 4 a.m. to milk cows.”