Fritz Payne, 104; WWII fighter ace, hero at Guadalcanal
LOS ANGELES — Frederick R. ‘‘Fritz’’ Payne, a World War II fighter ace who left his mark on aviation and wartime history by shooting down six Japanese warplanes during the Battle of Guadalcanal, a bloody, monthslong confrontation that helped change the course of the war, has died. He was 104.
The retired Marine Corps brigadier general, who was believed to be the oldest surviving US fighter ace, died Aug. 6 at his home in Rancho Mirage.
Hundreds had turned out to honor him on Memorial Day this spring at the Palm Springs Air Museum, which confirmed his death on Tuesday.
‘‘He was an extraordinary guy, and we can only hope that we can live up to his and others’ example and carry on in their footsteps and remember what they did,’’ said the museum’s director, Fred Bell.
What Mr. Payne did between September and October 1942 was take to the skies in an F4F Wildcat and shoot down four Japanese bombers and two fighter planes during a crucial battle for control of the Pacific Ocean that Allied forces had launched with no clear indication they could win.
‘‘Fritz came along at a time when we were essentially losing the war,’’ said Bell. He added that Mr. Payne and others who ‘‘stood their ground at Guadalcanal’’ kept the Japanese from gaining control of the Pacific from Australia to the United States. The battle was a turning point in the Pacific theater.
Mr. Payne received the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and other medals during a long military career.
When lawmakers on Capitol Hill decided earlier this year to honor all of the nation’s fighter aces with a Congressional Gold Medal, its highest civilian honor, Mr. Payne was too frail to attend. Instead, US Representative Raul Ruiz presented it to him at the Palm Springs Air Museum on May 25.
‘‘Terrific,’’ he said when it was presented.
‘‘He was a very humble guy,’’ noted Bell.
The title fighter ace is reserved for those who have shot down at least five enemy aircraft in battle. Technically Mr. Payne was awarded 5½ kills because he had help from another pilot in downing one plane.
Frederick Rounsville Payne Jr., was born July 31, 1911, in Elmira, N.Y., the son of a Spanish-American War veteran.
He attended the US Naval Academy for two years before completing his college education at the University of Arizona in 1935. Upon graduation he hoped to join the Navy’s cadet program but learned it was full.
‘‘My father said, ‘You’re a college graduate, go to the recruiting office and tell them you’d like to join the Marine Corps,’ ’’ Mr. Payne said in 2010.
So he did and the Marines made him a second lieutenant. When he retired in 1958 he was a brigadier general. Later he worked for Southern California Edison, managing the utility company’s aircraft operations until retiring in 1976.