Alabama native David McCampbell (1910-1996) was the leading U.S. Navy fighter pilot in World War II, performing actions that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor and other military decorations.
McCampbell was born in Bessemer, Jefferson County, on January 16, 1910, to Andrew Jackson McCampbell of Tennessee and Elizabeth LaValle Perry of Alabama; he had an older sister. As of 1920, the family was residing in Bessemer, according to U.S. Census records, although public records show that by 1922 they had moved to West Palm Beach, Florida. In his early teens McCampbell left home to attend the Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia; he graduated in 1928. He then attended the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta before the recommendation of Florida senator Park Trammel gained his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He graduated from the academy in 1933 with a degree in marine engineering. While there, he was an accomplished diver who competed in NCAA regional championships. Because Congress had limited the number of officer commissions as the result of funding shortfalls, McCampbell became an ensign in the Naval Reserve. He returned to Alabama to work in construction and in an aircraft assembly plant for a year.
In June 1934, he received orders from the Navy to report for active duty. McCampbell served aboard the cruiser USS Portland (CA-33) and later attended flight training at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. His first flying assignment was on the carrier USS Ranger (CV-3) from 1938 until 1940; he was then transferred to the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) and served as a landing signal officer. In spring 1942 the Wasp ferried much-needed aircraft to besieged British forces on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. Later transferred to the Pacific Ocean, the ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine in September 1942 during the Guadalcanal Campaign, with a loss of about 193; McCampbell returned to the United States and was promoted to lieutenant commander. He served briefly aboard the carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) and was later transferred to the similar USS Essex (CV-9). He commanded Fighter Squadron 15 (VF-15) and then was given command of Carrier Air Group 15, which included fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes; it was known as the Fabled Fifteen.
McCampbell and the Essex airmen were involved in numerous actions in the Pacific theater of operations, including strikes against the Japanese islands of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Guam. In a June 19, 1944, action that came to be known as the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, McCampbell led his F6F "Hellcat" fighter planes against 80 Japanese aircraft, and he shot down five bombers and two fighters. McCampbell's pilots accounted for approximately 68 of the 600 Japanese aircraft downed. The air battle is often referred to as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," so-named by the Americans for the large number of Japanese aircraft destroyed and the significantly smaller U.S. losses. During the October 24, 1944, Battle of Leyte Gulf, McCampbell and six other pilots took on a flight of approximately 60 Japanese aircraft threatening U.S. ships. He alone shot down nine planes in that action (a U.S. Navy record) and drove many more enemy planes away from U.S. forces. He landed virtually out of fuel and ammunition. For gallantry during these battles, McCampbell was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in January 1945. (The citation refers to the actions as the first and second battles of the Philippine Sea.)
McCampbell also was awarded the Navy Cross for coordinating an air attack during the Battle of Leyte Gulf that helped sink the Japanese battleship Musashi (one of the two largest such ships ever built), as well as a light carrier and numerous smaller warships. He also earned a Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with two Gold Stars, and an Air Medal. In his seven-month tour of duty, McCampbell was credited with downing 34 aircraft in air combat, making him the leading Navy fighter pilot of the war, and destroying another 21 on the ground. His Air Group 15 is estimated to have downed more than 310 planes in the air and nearly 350 on the ground and sunk more than 174,300 tons of enemy shipping in addition to sinking and damaging many warships.
In his post-World War II career, McCampbell served in numerous training, command, and staff capacities, including a stint
with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as captain of the carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31). He retired from the Navy in 1964 and died on June 30, 1996, in Riviera Beach, Florida. He was reportedly married
three times, according to public records, and had a son. After his death, he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of
Fame, and in 2002, the U.S. Navy commissioned a destroyer in his honor, the USS McCampbell (DDG-85).
Noles, James L. Jr. Hearts of Dixie: Fifty Alabamians and the State They Called Home. Birmingham, Ala.: Will Publishing, L.L.C., 2004.
Tillman, Barrett. Hellcat: The F6F in World War II. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1979.
Published July 5, 2012
Last updated September 25, 2014