Lt. Eugene A. Valencia, VF-9, USS Lexington, February 1945 

One of the highest scoring naval fighter aces, Eugene Anthony Valencia, made himself famous as leader of the “Valencia Circus”, which was the name given to his division because of their ability to shoot down enemies and also thanks to their rather flamboyant demeanor. He was born on April 13, 1921, in San Francisco and joined the US Navy in 1941. He was designated a Naval Aviator on February 9, 1942, and after a stint as an instructor, he reported to VF-9 on board of USS Essex a year later. When November 11 came, the day of the massive, combined strike on Rabaul, Valencia achieved three full victories plus one shared. After one victory at the end of January 1944, he became ace with three Zeros shot down on February 17. When back from his first combat tour, he worked with selected pilots on the tactics “Mowing Machine”, the idea he got during fights over Truk archipelago. In this tactic a pilot could constantly be on the attack while his mates would be providing cover for him. The VF-9 returned to Pacific in January 1945 and soon after Valencia’s division started to reap the benefits of their training. Valencia increased his score steadily from February 16, 1945, when he added his eighth full victory near the Imba lake. At the end of the tour, his score counted 23 confirmed enemies shot down, two probably and two damaged, making him the third best US naval ace of WWII. He passed away in 1972.


Lt. Cornelius N. Nooy, VF-31, USS Belleau Wood, August 1945

Cornelius Nicholas Nooy was born on April 15, 1921, in Smithtown and became probably the deadliest ornamental gardener in the world, as he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Ornamental Horticulture from the New York State Institute of Agriculture in 1941 and also became one of the most successful Naval fighters. He enlisted in the US Navy on March 18, 1942, and started his flight training on August 1, 1942. Four and a half months later he was designated a Naval Aviator and became member of VF-31. There he did not waste time and achieved his first aerial victory on January 29, when he shot down one Zero while another was classified as probable. In the end he had 19 victories to his credit, ranking him the fifth most successful US naval fighter of WWII (rank shared with Alexander Vraciu and Patrick Fleming) and the most successful fighter operating from light aircraft carriers. The Hellcat depicted here sports symbols of all of his victories under the windshield and also his name and the emblem of the VF-31. Between them, there was probably the emblem of NYSIA. This aircraft served several pilots to take commemorative photos at the end of the tour and so all the logos and names were temporary. As the unit’s symbol was usually placed in front of the windshield, we presume it was also the case of this aircraft. Nooy left active duty on December 28, 1945, and served in the Naval Reserve, where he was promoted to Lt Cdr on February 1, 1952. He died of cancer just a month before his 37th birthday.


BuNo 70597, Lt. James L. Pearce, VF-17, USS Hornet, March 21, 1945

James Lano Pearce became not only a Naval fighter but also a remarkable aviation personality. He enlisted with the Navy on July 3, 1941. After getting his “wings” and promotion to the rank of Ensign he served with VS-52 flying scout planes from Bora Bora, Society Islands, from December 1942 to July 1943. Following he was transferred to VF-18 and he probably shot down a Zeke on November 11 in vicinity of Rabaul and shared 0,25 of the victory over a Betty on December 25, 1943. A damaged Betty bomber on January 1944 was his last achievement with VF-18 prior to his return to west coast, where he helped to reform VF-17 from March 1944. He returned to combat aboard USS Hornet (CV-12). He shared one Myrt shot down on March 18, 1945 and his best day came on March 21, when he sent down two Betty bombers and finally recorded 5,25 victories plus 15 aircraft destroyed on the ground. After the war he was stationed at the Flight Test Division at NAS Patuxent River until his departure from the Navy on August 27, 1948. He then continued his career of test pilot with Grumman, but just after six months he changed employer and for the next 15 years helped with the development of the North American Aviation aircraft. During this service he lost his left leg below knee in 1953 but kept flying. Another change came at the early stage of the Apollo space program. Jim Pearce was placed in charge of test and check out of the Apollo Command and Service Modules for the Lunar program and remained at the Kennedy Space Center until 1967, when he decided to start his own business, which he run until February 9, 2011, when he died. 


BuNo 72663, Ens. William A. Sinnott, VF-24, USS Santee, July 7, 1945

July 7, 1945, was not a lucky day for the escort carrier USS Santee units VF-24 and VT-24. During the landing procedure the arresting hook of the Hellcat flown by Ens William A. Sinnott broke, the aircraft cleared all the barriers a ran into parked planes, causing a fire. Four Hellcats and two Avengers were jettisoned, six torpedo bombers were damaged and one of the pilots of the parked aircraft was killed. VF-24 was on its second tour from March 27 to July 19. During this spell the pilots were mostly tasked with ground attack missions, as they were supporting the Allied landings on Okinawa from April 1 and helping British carrier forces to deny Japanese units to use the airfields on the Sakishima islands. On June 16, USS Santee launched a fighter bomber mission against targets on Kyūshū, Japanese mainland. On June 19 the ship arrived at Leyte Gulf and undergo minor repairs. She was in action again from July 1 and at the time of the Sinnott’s crash was covering minesweeping operations west of Okinawa. During the whole second tour the pilots of VF-24 achieved just three aerial victories, which was down to the nature of their tasks. Two months and two weeks after the crash on the deck of USS Santee, the VF-24 was disbanded on September 20, 1945. As a part of the Carrier Division 22, their Hellcats sported white tails and white rectangles on the leading edge of the starboard wing’s upper side). The aircraft of USS Santee were distinguished by two yellow stripes on the rear fuselage and on the wing, accompanying the white rectangle. Aircraft from USS Chennango sported one yellow stripe, USS Suwanee two white stripes and USS Sangamon one white stripe.    


BuNo 72296 Lt. Louis A. Menard, jr., VBF-12, USS Randolph, February 17, 1945

Louis Arthur Menard, called Lou, joined the Navy on July 21, 1941. He was designated a Naval Aviator on January 31, 1942 and promoted to the rank of Ensign. His first combat deployment took him to North Africa on board of USS Ranger as a member of VF-9. There he achieved one confirmed and one probable kill flying F4F-4 on November 9. A year later, on November 11, he added two Zekes to his tally still as a member of VF-9, but aboard USS Essex. After shooting down a Kate on January 29, 1944, he made himself an ace as he shot down two Kates and two Petes on February 17. Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on April 1, 1944, he was attached to the VF-12 and, on January 2, 1945, moved to its sibling squadron VBF-12. February 16 was the day of his last victory. He shot down one Judy, but the next day he had to bail out over the ocean and strong wind dragged him through the water. The crew of the destroyer Taussig finally saved him. This ended his tour and he returned to the USA. He stayed in active duty until 1968, when he retired in the rank of Commander. He was XO of VF-33 from June 1953 and CO of VF-102 from September 1954. Regarding the Navy loss list, Menard flew Hellcat BuNo 72296 and a painting accompanying the interview with him portrays the aircraft with tactical number 32. We thus assume it was the one Lou had to bail out from. Another source states the aircraft was BuNo 72635 and to make the things even more complicated, there were two Hellcats with number 32 on board of USS Randolph. Which of them was this No. 32 Hellcat of VBF-12 is not clear. The decals offer both BuNo. options. 


Flottille 1F, PA Arromanche, French Indochina, 1951

The French Navy bought 124 F6F-5s and fifteen F6F-5Ns between 1950 and 1953. The plane equipped several combat units, including famous wartime I/6 Corse and II/6 Normandie-Niemen squadrons. The Naval 1F Flotille was another unit to convert to Hellcats and one of those fighting in Indochina, where  France tried to reinstate its pre-war colony but faced  the communists opposition led by Ho Chi Minh. The unit was transformed into 11F on June 20, 1953, while back in France, and sent back to French Indochina immediately. The Hellcats were also used by 54S, 57S and 59S training squadrons. French scrapped their Hellcats in 1960 and replaced them with the F8F Bearcat. Their Hellcats were painted in Gloss Sea Blue and had a modified French roundel with an anchor. The aircraft sported the famous symbol of the Seahorse on the vertical stabilizer. The appearance of the seahorse varied from aircraft to aircraft.