Valor: Number Two, With Honor

Sept. 1, 1990

In an uncharacteristic personal accolade, the staid “Army Air Forces in World War II” (Vol. V) called Maj. Thomas McGuire “one of the best-liked and-respected pilots in the Fifth Air Force.” Men who flew with him say McGuire was an extrovert with a great sense of humor and unsurpassed concern for his men. Time after time, he broke contact on a sure kill to rescue a pilot in trouble. He was a disciplined team player all the way. Master of the P-38, superb tactician, phenomenal shot, and inspirational leader, this slight, 25-year-old fighter pilot had it all–except the title of America’s number one ace, which fate denied him.

McGuire began his career as a fighter pilot in the Aleutians, where he never saw an enemy aircraft. In March 1943, he was sent to the Southwest Pacific as a Lockheed P-38 pilot with the 49th Fighter Group. He joined the 475th Fighter Group in July 1943, and in May 1944 was named commander of its 431st Squadron.

McGuire scored his first victories, a triple, on Aug. 18, 1943, while the group was based at Dobodura, New Guinea. Two months later, there were 13 victory flags painted on the nose of his P-38, named Pudgy for his wife.

The mission of Oct. 17, which added the last three, came close to being his finale. After shooting down three enemy fighters over Oro Bay, he broke off to cover a damaged P-38. Three Zeros came down on his tail, wounding him and setting his plane on fire. McGuire tried to bail out at 12,000 feet, but his feet were caught in the cockpit. Breaking loose at 5,000 feet, he discovered that his parachute rip cord had been severed. Finding a wire dangling behind him, he pulled, and his chute opened at 1,000 feet. His life raft, riddled with holes, sank immediately, but he managed to stay afloat for 40 minutes until he was picked up by a PT boat.

Six months after joining the 475th, McGuire had scored 16 victories and was challenging Maj. Richard I. Bong, who had been in the theater for nearly a year, for the title of top American ace. When Bong went home on leave in November, McGuire expected to erase the eight-victory gap between them, but bad luck intervened. He was grounded much of the time with malaria and dengue fever.

McGuire ended the year with another triple on Dec. 26 while protecting an Allied invasion convoy off Cape Gloucester, New Britain. As his squadron was under attack by an estimated 50 enemy fighters, he saw enemy dive bombers about to hit the convoy. Relinquishing tactical advantage to the Japanese fighters, he led two flights of P-38s down to destroy 10 dive bombers and three fighters. McGuire was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership and heroism that day. Then he had a long dry spell lasting until mid-May 1944, during which enemy aircraft seldom were to be found.

As the 475th moved north along New Guinea’s coast, then to Leyte in the Philippines, the hunting picked up. On Dec. 13, McGuire’s score stood at 31, only seven behind Bong. In the next four days, Bong reached the magic number of 40 victories, at which point Kenney had sworn to send him home for good. While Bong was en route to the States and a round of celebrations, McGuire shot down three enemy aircraft on Dec. 25 and four on the 26th, bringing him to within two of Bong’s record. Both days he went to the aid of aircraft in trouble while facing odds of three or four to one. Kenney knew that on any subsequent mission, McGuire might pass the 40 mark to supplant Bong as the leading ace. Not wanting to mar Bong’s reception, he grounded McGuire until Jan. 6, 1945.

The next day, McGuire led a flight of four P-38s bound for Mindoro, home to many Japanese aircraft. He was not flying his own Pudgy V, but nevertheless he intended to return that day as the top ace. Over Negros Island they were attacked by a lone Oscar flown by Akira Sugimoto, an old hand at the fighter business. In an attempt to shoot this extraordinary pilot off his wingman’s tail, McGuire pulled his P-38, still carrying a belly tank, too tight, stalled at 200 feet, and crashed to his death. The full story of that last mission was told for the first time by Carroll Anderson, a squadron mate, in the January 1975 issue of AIR FORCE Magazine.

For his “gallant initiative [and] unselfish concern for the safety of others,” Maj. Thomas McGuire was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. McGuire AFB in New Jersey is named in his honor. Many believe McGuire was the greatest fighter pilot in the Pacific. At any rate, he flew and he died determined to destroy the enemy and to protect his men regardless of cost. What better can be said of any fighting man?

Published September 1990. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.