b. 05/06/1911 Wichita Falls, Texas. d. 05/03/1944 Wewak, New Guinea.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 11/10/1943 near Wewak, New Guinea.
Kearby was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, on June 5, 1911, to John Gallatin and Bessie Lee Kearby. He graduated from Arlington High School in 1928, and graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1936 (known then as North Texas Agricultural College) with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Kearby joined the Army Air Corps in 1937, and received flight training at Randolph and Kelly Air Fields. Kearby then served with the 94th and 40th Pursuit Squadrons of the 1st Pursuit Group at Selfridge Field in Michigan, until December 1940. Kearby commanded the 14th Pursuit Squadron in the Panama Canal Zone from December 1940 to August 1942, where he flew P-39 Airacobras.
He was transferred in October 1942 to Westover Field in Massachusetts to take command of the new 348th Fighter Group with the rank of major. In June 1943, now a lieutenant colonel, Kearby would arrive in Australia with his fighter group after months of training on the P-47 Thunderbolt.
The 348th used the P-47’s flight characteristics to their advantage. They used their turbo supercharged engines to fly at high altitude to the target and dove on the Japanese planes before firing their eight .50-caliber machine guns on the lightly armored enemy aircraft.
He flew an aircraft bearing the name “Fiery Ginger”. There were several planes with this title in the 358th Fighter Group at that time. All of Kearby’s P-47D’s – bore the names, “Fiery Ginger”, “Fiery Ginger II”, “Fiery Ginger III” and “Fiery Ginger IV”. They were all named after his wife Virginia.
On October 11, 1943, Kearby led four P-47s on a fighter sweep over the Japanese base at Wewak, and ran into 40 Japanese Army fighters. The ensuing combat lasted close to an hour, and when it was over, Kearby had shot down six enemy planes, which included four Nakajima Ki-43s and two Kawasaki Ki-61s.
Two other pilots had downed three Ki-61s between them for a total of nine Japanese fighters shot down without loss. This made Kearby the first P-47 ace of the Pacific Theater of Operations, and set a United States Army Air Forces record for most victories in a single mission.
Upon hearing of this aerial victory, General George Kenney, head of Fifth Air Force in the Pacific, recommended Kearby for the Medal of Honor, which was presented to him by General Douglas MacArthur himself January 23, 1944 in Brisbane, Australia.
The American record for most victories in single mission is nine, set a year later by USN F6F Hellcat pilot, David McCampbell. Kearby’s record was later broken within the United States Army Air Force as well, when P-51 Mustang pilot William Shomo downed seven Japanese planes in a six-minute fight over the Philippines in January 1945.
Postwar evaluation of Japanese records showed that only two of the nine victories credited on the Medal of Honor mission were valid, although three other Japanese fighters were damaged. However, the two losses were a squadron leader and a wing commander.
On March 5, 1944, Kearby took off on a combat patrol with Captain William D. Dunham and Major Samuel Blair to search for Japanese aircraft. Flying his personal aircraft “Fiery Ginger IV” he proceeded towards the Tadji area. They spotted enemy aircraft over Wewak, and intercepted three Kawasaki Ki-48s of the 208th Sentai approaching Dagua Airfield.
Kearby opened fire on one aircraft, but did not observe it to go down and made a complete circle to attack it again. While performing this maneuver, he was attacked by a Ki-43 Oscar from the 77th Sentai before wingman Dunham could shoot it down. Kearby’s P-47 crashed into the jungle below. Afterwards, Dunham and Blair unsuccessfully searched for him until they ran short on fuel and returned to Saidor Airfield.
Kearby was observed by local people on the ground to have escaped by parachute and as he descended he became tangled in a tree and died of bullet wounds from the attack. His remains were found in 1947 by a Royal Australian Air Force search team, but they were left unidentified for two more years. He was buried in Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in July 1949.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy, Col. Kearby volunteered to lead a flight of four fighters to reconnoiter the strongly defended enemy base at Wewak. Having observed enemy installations and reinforcements at four airfields, and secured important tactical information, he saw an enemy fighter below him, made a diving attack, and shot it down in flames. The small formation then sighted approximately 12 enemy bombers accompanied by 36 fighters. Although his mission had been completed, his fuel was running low, and the numerical odds were 12 to 1, he gave the signal to attack. Diving into the midst of the enemy airplanes he shot down three in quick succession. Observing one of his comrades with two enemy fighters in pursuit, he destroyed both enemy aircraft. The enemy broke off in large numbers to make a multiple attack on his airplane, but despite his peril he made one more pass before seeking cloud protection. Coming into the clear, he called his flight together and led them to a friendly base. Col. Kearby brought down six enemy aircraft in this action, undertaken with superb daring after his mission was completed.
BURIAL LOCATION: HILLCREST MEMORIAL PARK, DALLAS, TEXAS.
GARDEN OF DEVOTION BLOCK 13, LOT 19, SPACE 7 AND 8.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE US AIR FORCE, WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, OHIO.