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James B. Morehead, at 95; World War II fighter pilot

u.s. army air forces

Like a hunter, Mr. Morehead stalked his prey from a distance before flying in for the kill.

WASHINGTON - James B. Morehead, a retired Air Force colonel and a highly decorated World War II combat ace who earned the sobriquet Wildman for his brazen air attacks in the Pacific and who later became a globe-trotting big-game hunter, died March 11 at a hospital in Petaluma, Calif. He was 95.

He had complications of a stroke, said his daughter, Myrna Moritz.

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Behind the stick of a P-40 Warhawk, Mr. Morehead flew with fearless ease and wreaked terror on Japanese planes with his peerless accuracy.

For his bravery during World War II, he twice received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military award for valor that can be given to a member of the Army Air Forces.

He credited his eight kills during World War II to having grown up during the Depression on an Oklahoma farm, where his rifle supplemented his family’s meager suppers.

He joined the Army in 1940 and trained as a pilot in Northern California.

“Until I flew,’’ he told journalist George Weller during World War II, “I was never higher above the ground than the seat of a farm cultivator.’’

He became known as a “wild man’’ for his willingness to take risks. On one occasion, he flew a sortie to Sacramento upside down the entire way.

Another time, he and a fellow pilot collided in midair. Mr. Morehead jumped out of his cockpit and parachuted 400 feet to safety. The other pilot, Second Lieutenant William E. Scott, 22, died in the crash.

Mr. Morehead was recuperating from his injuries when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He later said the audacity of the attack motivated him to seek vengeance in the skies.

His opportunity came on April 25, 1942, in the air above Darwin, Australia, where he spotted a formation of about 30 Japanese bombers and a complement of fighter planes.

Although greatly outnumbered - his unit had only eight planes - Mr. Morehead seized the opportunity for a surprise attack.

Mr. Morehead said he approached air combat with the same tactics he used for hunting, by stalking his prey from a distance before going in for the kill.

“I cautioned myself, like I was sneaking up on a buck deer,’’ he said in an interview on his website. “I’m approaching these enemy fighters on their tail. Boy, I sure didn’t want to jangle a wasp’s nest by letting ’em know I’m attacking ’em until he’s gone.’’

Leading the assault on the Japanese, Mr. Morehead aimed his sights at the first bomber. His bullets raked the cockpit and the engines. Then he shot up a second bomber before downing a fighter plane.

“America is fortunate it had an ex-hunter in that lead airplane ’cause I knocked the hell out of that lead bomber and set him on fire,’’ Mr. Morehead once said. “And then I pulled around and set two more of ’em ablaze. Take that for Pearl Harbor.’’

For destroying three enemy aircraft that day, Mr. Morehead received the Distinguished Service Cross for “unquestionable valor in aerial combat.’’

His other Distinguished Service Cross also was awarded for air combat with Japanese planes in the Pacific. He also received the Silver Star and two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On D-day - June 6, 1944 - Mr. Morehead earned his eighth and final kill of the war by shooting down a German Messerschmitt fighter plane over Romania.

James Bruce Morehead was born in Paoli, Okla., and grew up in Washington, Okla., where his parents had a farm and a country store.

After World War II, he joined the newly created Air Force. He retired from a desk job at the Pentagon in 1967.

His first marriage, to Aldine Morehead, ended in divorce. Their son, Jimmy Morehead, died in the 1960s in a camping accident.

His second wife, Betty Bob Angerman Morehead, died in 2011 after 51 years of marriage. Survivors include two daughters from his second marriage; and two grandchildren.

In retirement, Mr. Morehead traveled the world in pursuit of big game. He journeyed on a number of safaris in Africa and adorned his ranch home with scores of exotic trophies.

He bagged a Cape buffalo in Botswana and a baboon in Ethiopia. He had the simian stuffed and kept it on display in his home office.

He had an African lion made into a rug, a hyena pelt pinned to his wall, and the skull of a hippopotamus in his front yard.

Although Wildman said he was “not so wild anymore’’ as a nonagenarian, he shot a buck last year on a hunting trip in California, using a rifle with iron sights and no scope.

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