by David Sears
Originally published in Naval History Magazine – August 2015, Volume 29, Number 4
With a strong naval aviation pedigree that featured legendary fighter pilots Jimmie Thach and Butch O’Hare, Alex Vraciu jumped to the top of the Navy-ace leaderboard with an epic performance at the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
The 31 August 1943 raid against Marcus Island was a big success—catching the Japanese with their pants down in the cold gray dawn. 1 But while aviators from big fleet carriers such as the Yorktown (CV-10) and Essex (CV-9) had a field day, those from the smaller light carriers (CVLs) made do with combat air patrol (CAP). It was perhaps only his reputation as a Medal of Honor recipient that earned Fighting Squadron (VF) Six commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, flying from the Independence (CVL-22), the opportunity to join the Essex’s final strike missions.
Still, O’Hare’s four Hellcats got little to show for it. Their only legitimate target was No. 15 Jitai Maru , a small Japanese supply ship. 2 Butch led his fighters in two withering passes, but the Jitai Maru survived. Then O’Hare’s wingman, 24-year-old Lieutenant (junior grade) Alex Vraciu (pronounced “vrashew”), impulsively peeled off for a solo run. Rounds from his wing guns peppered the Jitai Maru until the craft suddenly exploded. Convinced he’d “sunk the unsinkable” (learning only later bombs from a Yorktown TBF Avenger actually triggered the explosion), the lieutenant returned to formation expecting praise but instead “caught hell” from his commander for breaching flight discipline