Alex Vraciu, who was just 25 when he reigned as the Navy’s top World War II fighter ace after downing 19 Japanese aircraft and destroying 21 more on the ground in only eight months in 1944, died on Jan. 29 in West Sacramento, Calif. He was 96.

08vraciu-obit-superJumboHis son Robert confirmed the death, at a group home where his father lived.

Mr. Vraciu (which rhymes with cashew) accomplished his most spectacular feat in the South Pacific when he shot down six dive bombers within eight minutes in what became known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” in the Philippine Sea. He called it “a once-in-a-lifetime fighter pilot’s dream.”

Two of the aircraft carriers he flew from were torpedoed, twice he parachuted to safety, and twice more he was forced to ditch his Grumman F6F Hellcat — brushes with death that earned him the nicknames Grumman’s Best Customer and The Indestructible.

He was nominated for the Medal of Honor and received the service’s second-highest honor, the Navy Cross. And although he ranked as the Navy’s top ace for four months, he ended the war in fourth place. When he died, he was the nation’s ranking living World War II ace, according to the American Fighter Aces Association.

He was born on Nov. 2, 1918, in East Chicago, Ind., the son of Romanian immigrants. His father, Alexander, was a police officer; his mother, the former Marie Tincu, was a homemaker. Shortly after graduating from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., already armed with a civilian pilot’s license, he enlisted in a Navy flight training program six months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“He could feel the wind of war and wanted to get out in front of it,” Robert Vraciu said in an interview.

Mr. Vraciu entered combat in 1943 as part of Fighting Squadron 6, serving as wingman for Lt. Cmdr. Butch O’Hare, the Navy’s first combat pilot ace and its first aviator to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II.

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