HAMILTON – Hamilton’s own World War II fighter ace is about to join some incredible company.
This week, Frank McCauley will fly – via Learjet – to Washington, D.C., to join more than three dozen other American fighter ace pilots for a ceremony to receive this nation’s highest civilian award: the Congressional Gold Medal.
The May 20 ceremony recognizes the accomplishments of the 1,447 American pilots who achieved the elite designation of “fighter ace” after shooting down at least five enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat.
Flying protective cover for bombers headed to Germany and France from their bases in England, McCauley was credited with 5 1/2 enemy planes. He flew in 46 missions in a P-47 Thunderbolt Fighter that he named “Rat Racer.”
He shared his first victory with another pilot when they both shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 110 during a sortie over the Schweinfurt-Regensburg on Aug. 17, 1943. McCauley added another before the day was over.
He officially became a fighter ace on Oct. 14, when he shot down his fifth Messerschmitt on a day when his squadron attacked a dozen enemy aircraft waiting for the American fighters to return to base after their fuel ran low.
Despite the fact that their fuel gauges were dropping fast, the squadron made a 180-degree turn to attack the enemy and drive them off. To this day, the 98-year-old knows that act saved American lives.
McCauley will join fighter pilots from Korea and Vietnam at this week’s ceremony, to be held in the Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitor Center.
“What an honor it will be to welcome these living legends to the United States Capitol, where they will receive the highest honor we can bestow on behalf of the American people,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner in a press release. “This medal is meant to honor the feats these men achieved and the sacrifices their families made to keep the skies – and the world – safe for democracy.”
The event was convened by Seattle’s Museum of Flight. It comes a year after Congress unanimously passed legislation to recognize the aces with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Dating back to the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Some of the past recipients include Charles Lindbergh, Rosa Parks and Neil Armstrong.
Following the ceremony, the American fighter aces’ gold medal will be displayed in the Smithsonian. McCauley and the other aces will receive a bronze replica of the medal.
“It’s kind of nice to be recognized like that,” McCauley said.
The Seattle museum enlisted the support of more than 20 pilots and a fleet of private jets to fly the aces and their families to Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday morning, McCauley and his wife, Bobbie, will await the arrival of a white Learjet with black winglets and black tail at the Hamilton airport.
While McCauley isn’t sure if a Learjet has ever landed in Hamilton before, he does know this: “There’s never been one land there to pick me up. That’s pretty darn nice.”
And when he arrives in Washington, D.C., he will be watching for a familiar face among the fighter aces gathered there.
A year ago, at a similar gathering of fighter aces, McCauley met an old friend named Les Smith.
“We went through fighter school together,” he said. “We were assigned to the same outfit and flew together in England. When the war ended, he went his way and I went mine. Before last year, we hadn’t seen each other for 65 years.”
“I recognized him right away,” McCauley said. “That was really something. It was a tear-jerker, for sure.”
Of the 77 fighter aces still alive, the oldest is 104 and the youngest is 72. The majority of aces still alive today earned that status in World War 2. The last pilot to earn the elite designation fought in the Vietnam War.
“If there’s an elite among fighter pilots, it’s these men,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles “Chick” Cleveland in a press release. “They helped shorten the wars and saved lives. These men are disappearing, but must not be forgotten.”