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NEWS | March 5, 2021

The Tommy B. McGuire, Jr. Story

By James J. Warrick 87 Air Base Wing

Major Thomas B. McGuire, Jr., was born on 1 August 1920 in Ridgewood, New Jersey.  His father, Thomas B. McGuire, Sr., owned a Packard automobile dealership in Paterson, New Jersey, and the family of Irish descent was fairly affluent during the Depression. After his parents separated, he moved with his mother in the 1930’s to Sebring, Florida, where he spent his teenage years. An accomplished clarinetist and sports car devotee, McGuire was accepted as an engineering student at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech University). Nonetheless, the promising student put aside personal gain when he left college in his third year to pursue his ultimate dream of flying.  He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941 as an aviation cadet. Very slight of build – less than 140 pounds – and 5’ 8” tall, he made up with determination what he lacked in size.

Assigned to the 431st Fighter Squadron – Satan's Angels – of General George Kenney’s all-P-38 475th Fighter Group, he would be part of the first such group to form in Fifth Air Force and activate overseas.  McGuire was one of the experienced pilots that served as the vanguard of the new unit.  The commander of the 431st Fighter Squadron, Captain Frank Nichols, saw an innate leadership in McGuire, appointed him squadron engineering officer and asked him to help assemble the squadron’s P-38’s after they arrived crated in Townsville, Australia.  McGuire also volunteered to assist the armorers with testing the new machine guns and cannons on the P-38’s - in the process becoming an expert in gunnery.  Thus McGuire’s many hundreds of hours of experience, coupled with his dozens of test flights and gunnery practice in P-38’s proved to be an invaluable apprenticeship period when he entered aerial combat in the hectic operational period over New Guinea in August, 1943.  McGuire scored astounding aerial victories immediately.  On 18 August 1943, in a P-38 he named “Pudgy” (a nickname his wife’s friends had given her in jest), McGuire was part of a group flying top-cover for bombers striking at Wewak, New Guinea. Nearing their target, the fighters were attacked by Japanese aircraft. During the battle, McGuire shot down two Ki-43 II "Oscars" and one Ki-61 "Tony." On the following day, near the same location, he downed two more Oscars. This established him as an air ace after engaging the enemy only twice. In fact, by the end of August 1943, having never before met the enemy in combat prior to that period, he had scored seven aerial victories, received a Silver Star, and earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a record never to be surpassed an 8-day period of combat in Air Force history.

McGuire’s aerial victory score thereafter rose very quickly.  Some say he was the most gifted combat pilot in Air Force history.  His many victories came against highly maneuverable fighters in the less-than-agile P-38 flown to its very maximum capability.  It was not unusual for McGuire’s wingmen to black out or lose their leader during his combat maneuvering. His precise gunnery, unbelievable knowledge of the P-38 and enemy capabilities made McGuire the most effective combat pilot in the entire U.S. Army Air Forces after August 1943—no other pilot, even Major Richard Bong, the Air Force’s leading all-time ace, matched McGuire’s record and accomplishments over the next 15 months.  By the end of 1944, McGuire had scored 38 aerial victories, becoming the second leading ace of all time.  He was poised to become the Air Force’s leading ace when fate intervened.

On 7 January 1945, McGuire was leading a group of four P-38’s over the Japanese-held Fabrica airstrip on Negros Islands, Republic of the Philippines. His formation was scattered by rough weather conditions, and before the entire four-ship element had reformed, McGuire, always quick to spot the enemy with his keen eyesight, spotted a Ki-43 II Oscar coming in low below his aircraft.  McGuire and his wingman dove on the Oscar aircraft at low level, still with heavy 150-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks attached.  Unfortunately, the Oscar was piloted by a Japanese pilot with thousands of hours of experience (quite unusual for that point in the war).  McGuire closed on the Oscar and attempted to train his guns on the wildly maneuvering aircraft.   In the wild turning melee that followed, another Japanese aircraft, a superb Ki-84 “Frank” entered the dogfight unobserved and began to engage the formation.  Sometime in the fight, McGuire’s P-38 apparently entered a low-speed unrecoverable stall at low-level while attempting to clear the tail of his Wingman, Lieutenant Edwin Weaver. Inverted, his plane crashed a few miles from Fabrica airstrip near a pineapple plantation.

McGuire met his death not in his famous “131” Pudgy V, but rather in Captain Fred Champlin’s “112” Eileen.  McGuire had felt Pudgy V had about run out of luck--its huge collection of 38 victory flags made potential adversaries hesitant to fight.  In tribute to his outstanding leadership, courage, and accomplishments, Major McGuire was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his final mission, and for missions on 25-26 December 1944, in which he shot down seven Japanese fighters.  His first week and his last week of operational flying were the greatest in Air Force history, as he scored at least 14 aerial victories against great odds.  He is the highest ranking American ace to have been killed in combat.  McGuire's decorations in addition to the Medal of Honor included the Defense Distinguished Service Cross, three silver stars, six Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 15 Air Medals and three Purple Hearts.  Thomas B. McGuire Jr., was that rarest of individuals who combined natural gifts with sheer will and hard work to achieve immortality.  He and his dedicated crew chief, Technical Sergeant Frank Z. Kish, represent the greatest team in Air Force history.  All 38 aerial victories by McGuire were in a Kish-prepared aircraft.   Only 24-years of age, his potential life was left unrealized, and his awesome accomplishments were mere fragments of what might have been.