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The Navy's fighter pilots fought the entire war in the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor to the Home Islands. In 1942, flying F4F Wildcats, the Navy fighter pilots barely held their own against the Japanese Zeros. A handful of heroes like O'Hare, McCuskey, and Vejtasa scored some notable successes. The Navy contributed fighting squadrons to the Guadalcanal campaign, but did not achieve big results until late 1943, when the F4U Corsairs and F6F Hellcats arrived.
The Hellcats in particular, operating from the simultaneously-arriving Essex-class carriers, began to decimate the outclassed Japanese fliers. From the Gilberts, up through the Marshalls and the Marianas, the carrier-based Hellcats swept the skies. (One notable unit, VF-17, the Jolly Rogers, under its CO, Tommy Blackburn, flew F4U Corsairs from land bases in the Solomons.
In the huge aerial battles of the Philippine Sea (Marianas Turkey Shoot) and Leyte Gulf, the navy aces essentially destroyed the Japanese aerial forces. After that, in the tough campaigns for Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the Home Islands, the U.S. naval aviators faced poorly trained, but deadly, kamikaze pilots.
Fleming was an "Army brat" and an Annapolis graduate, the only ace from the class of 1941. He did a surface tour in cruisers, then applied for flight training. He won his wings in 1943 and was promptly assigned to be an instructor. He joined VF-80 in March, 1944.
His brief fighter career demonstrated the dominance of the U.S. Navy's carriers and Hellcats in the later stages of the Pacific War. Fleming engaged only nineteen targets during six combat missions between Nov. 5, 1944 and Feb. 17, 1945; he shot down all nineteen. His first kill was a Zero, over Manila, his only single victory.
Fleming's carrier, Ticonderoga (CV-14), gave aerial support to the Mindoro landings in the Philippines in mid-December 1944. At dawn on Dec. 14, the Hellcats started things with a series of fighter sweeps. VF-80 was one of the few squadrons to find combat when its fliers caught 27 Zeros trying to reinforce Mindoro. "Vorse's Vipers" shot down nineteen of them, four by Pat Fleming. On Jan. 3, 1945, the fast carriers went after Formosa, but bad weather prevented most squadrons from getting through. VF-80 did get to its objective and swept the area looking for targets; "P.D." Fleming found and shot down three.
As the kamikaze threat grew, the Navy increased the number of fighters on the carriers. When the VF squadrons exceeded 70 planes, they became increasingly awkward to administer, and many squadrons split into more manageable VF and VBF (fighter-bomber) squadrons. Frequently the two squadrons ran the same type of missions and both usually flew Hellcats. So it was with VF-80; on Jan. 10, 1945, VBF-80 was established, with Pat Fleming as its exec. While the distinctions between the two squadrons were mainly administrative, the records show that Fleming scored ten with VF-80 and nine more with VBF-80.
The carriers struck at Formosa again on the 21st, fiercely engaged by kamikazes. Three groups came at Ticonderoga, one hitting it with a 550-lb. bomb. As fires raged from this hit, another one crashed into the carrier's island, bringing the fatalities to 143. Several VF-80 pilots, including Pat Fleming manned the AA guns after the first attack. When the second Zero hit, a piece of falling debris hit Fleming on the helmet and knocked him overboard. A nearby destroyer rescued him. Due to the extensive damage to Ticonderoga, the air group transferred to Hancock (CV-19)
In mid-February, the carriers hit the Home Islands themselves, for the first time since the Doolittle raid of April, 1942. Fleming led nine VBF-80 Grummans on a Feb. 16 fighter-bomber attack on the Mobara airfield; they successfully bombed three of its five hangars. He spotted three Zeros high above and zoomed up to engage them. Approaching from behind, he burned two immediately, then chased and exploded another pair. He also hit another from behind (for a confirmed or probable kill, depending on the source). Fleming's Navy Cross citation for the mission credited him with five kills. The next day, Feb. 17, he closed his score with four more victories over Japan. VBF-80 went home in March, 1945.
After the war, he served at the Navy's famous Pax River test center, where he lived near Marion Carl's family. In January, 1947, General Curtis LeMay invited him to transfer to the new USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) as a Lt. Col. He died in 1956 when he bailed out of a B-52, but his chute caught fire.
U.S.S. Ticonderoga (CV-14)
transferring to the new U.S. Air Force in September 1947. Col Fleming continued on as a test pilot with the Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and Edwards AFB, California, until December 1949. His next assignment was as a project officer with the 4925th Special Weapons Group at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, from January to September 1950, followed by service with B-47 Project WIBAC at MacDill AFB, Florida, from September 1950 to January 1952. During this time he participated in Project 52 AFR-18 with the 306th Bomb Wing at MacDill, which used modified B-47 Stratojet bombers to make reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. Col Fleming transferred to Headquarters Strategic Air Command at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, in January 1952, serving there until June 1953, when he joined the 98th Bomb Wing at Fairchild AFB, Washington. While with the 98th BW, he deployed to Japan, flying combat missions during the last month of the Korean War, and remaining in theater until returning to the U.S. in December 1953. Col Fleming's final assignment was as Deputy Commander of the 93rd Bomb Wing at Castle AFB, California, from January 1954 until he was killed in the first B-52 Stratofortress crash on February 16, 1956.
Air Force Distinguished Service Medal
Awarded posthumously for actions during the Cold War
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pride in presenting the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal (Army Design) (Posthumously) to Colonel Patrick Dawson Fleming (NSN: 0-100296), United States Air Force, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in a position of great responsibility to the Government of the United States, from February 1954 to February 1956. As Deputy Wing Commander, 93d Bombardment Wing (Heavy), Colonel Fleming was directly instrumental in developing more efficient, safer, and easier methods for utilizing equipment in training of personnel in modern jet bombardment operations. His depth of knowledge and profound understanding of aircraft performance and bombardment operations, and his ability to lecture, educate and indoctrinate personnel in methods of improving procedures, significantly contributed to the successful conversion of this wing to jet bombardment aircraft. The untiring efforts and adept resourcefulness and dedicated devotion of Colonel Fleming to the attainment of a high state of combat readiness greatly improved the managerial effectiveness of the command aircraft conversion and training program. His actions may be readily associated with the increased operational capability of the Strategic Air Command. The outstanding contributions to national security rendered by Colonel Fleming have reflected the greatest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
General Orders: Department of the Air Force, General Orders No. 60 (1956)
Action Date: February 1954 - February 1956
Service: Air Force