Who Was America’s First WWII Ace?
“I was on patrol between Deal and Calls, leading a section of Hurricanes from my squadron, when we spotted, at 12,000 feet, a Dornier 17 ‘Flying Pencil,’” Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Davies of No. 79 Squadron, Royal Air Force, is describing his first encounter with a German bomber.
“My Hurricane quickly outmaneuvered him. I got on his tail, and gave him three sharp bursts of fire….The last I saw of him he was just above sea level. He had turned on his back, and a moment later crashed into the sea.”
The encounter took place over the Straits of Dover on November 21, 1939, only 2 1/2 months after World War II had started. Flight Lieutenant Davies shared the Dornier kill with a sergeant named Brown, of the same squadron. The most notable detail of this encounter is the fact that Davis, thought at the time a British Citizen, had been born in America.
James Davies was born to British parents in Bernardsville, N.J., in 1913, and attended Morristown High School. In the 1930s, Davies—who still held British citizenship—returned to his parents’ homeland and was commissioned in the Royal Air Force in 1936. When war broke out in September 1939, he was a Hurricane pilot with No. 79 squadron, which operated from Biggin Hill airfield in Kent, England.
Davies would claim his second victory on May 12, 1940, after German troops had invaded France and the Low Countries. By then, the British and French air forces had been all but overwhelmed by the Luftwaffe. By June 8, Davies had qualified as an ace, having destroyed eight enemy aircraft, and had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
On the day Davies was to have been awarded the DFC by King George VI, June 25, 1940, he was shot down and killed. The king asked about the remaining DFC on the table and was told about the expatriate American. A squadron mate reported that the king was “quite moved.”
Davies had been credited with six enemy aircraft plus two shared at the time of his death, and that was more than enough to make him the first American-born ace of the war. American record books, however, do not recognize him as an “American” ace. He had, after all, been a British citizen.
The United States was a neutral country during the first two years of the World War II and was determined to stay that way. The so-called Neutrality Acts passed by Congress between 1935 and 1937 made joining the armed forces of a “belligerent Nation,” including Britain’s RAF, a criminal offense. The punishment included 10 years in prison, a $20,000 fine and the loss of U.S. citizenship.
Six potential volunteers from California found about the Neutrality Acts the hard way. They had made a decision to join the RAF and headed for the Canadian border to try to make their way to England. When their train made its first stop in Canada, they were met by agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI men gave them a choice—either go back home or go to jail. It was not a difficult decision—the six young men went back to California. On their second attempt, they made it to the Canadian border and Joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, or booked passage to England as “reporters” or under other false covers. In one instance, a Wall Street banker told Boston Customs officials that he was going to Canada “for some shooting.” Official Royal Air Force records list only seven Americans as having served with RAF Fighter Command before the formation of the Eagle Squadrons in 1941. They were Pilot Officer W.M.L. Fiske, No. 601 Squadron, who died August 17, 1940; Pilot Officer Arthur Donahue, 64 Squadron; Pilot Officer J.K. Havilland, 151 Squadron; Pilot Officer Phil Leckrone, 616 Squadron; and Pilot Officers Andrew Mamedorff, Vernon Keough and Eugene Tobin, all three with 609 Squadron. But there were many more than those seven. Because it was against American law to join the RAF, most Americans would not give their true nationality when signing their enlistment papers. No one knows how many pilots, officially listed as Canadian or Commonwealth citizens, were actually American. Ministery of Defense records list them as Canadians, which is no proof that they really were.
Pilot Officer Hugh Reilly was one such American pilot. Although he did not become an ace, the method by which Reilly entered the RAF gives an idea of the determination of some Americans to come to England before 1941.
Reilly not only declared himself to be Canadian but also managed to get hold of a Canadian passport. Nobody is quite sure how he got the passport, since he made everyone connected with his little plot swear to secrecy. If either the Canadian of American authorities had gotten wind of the scheme, everyone involved would have wound up in prison.
The illegal passport served its purpose. It got Reilly past U.S. Customs and the Neutrality Acts and access to England. In September 1940, the 22-year-old was commissioned as a Pilot Officer (equivalent to a second lieutenant in the United States). Later that month, Reilly was posted to No. 66 Squadron, based Gravesend, Kent, and took part in the great air battle of September 15 that culminated the so-called Battle of Britain.
Reilly shot down a Messerschmitt Bf-109 on September 27. Three weeks later, he was shot down and killed by German ace Werner Mölders. Reilly is buried in a churchyard in Gravesend. Because of his illegal passport, his true nationality was buried with him.
Another of the many “unofficial” Americans on the RAF—and also the second unofficial American ace of the war—was Carl Davis. Davis is officially listed as a citizen of South Africa where he had been born, but he actually was a U.S. citizen. His parents were Americans, and Davis held a U.S. passport (a legal one issued by the State Department). Because of the Neutrality Acts, it was a lot handier for him to be South African than to declare his real citizenship.
Pilot Officer Davis was assigned to No. 601 Squadron (County of London) Squadron, which flew Hawker Hurricanes from Tangmere Aerodrome, Sussex. Between July 11 and September 4, 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, Davis himself downed nine German aircraft and helped destroy one more.
On September 6, two days after he destroyed his last German aircraft, Davis was shot down. His Hurricane crashed, upside down, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent. He died as a result of his injuries and is buried in Storrington, Sussex, in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Church. Davis’ citizenship was not really covered up the way Hugh Reilly kept his a secret; it had just been overlooked.
For many of the “secret Americans” or “American Canadians” who served in the Royal Air Force prior to Pearl Harbor, the only traces of their nationality are nicknames, buried in the war records, such as “Tex,” “America,” or “Uncle Sam.” Establishing the identity of the first “official” American ace in WWII was no less confusing than trying to find out who was the first unofficial ace. It took 26 years to definitively establish the pilot who would be recognized as the first U.S. fighter ace.
Part of the confusion, of course, stemmed from the fact that so many Americans had circumvented the Neutrality Acts, gone to Britain and joined the RAF. In the fall of 1940, RAF Fighter Command decided to form a squadron made up entirely of Americans—No. 71 Squadron, the first of WWII’s famous Eagle Squadrons. Now there would be a full squadron of potential aces, competing to be the first.
Number 71 Squadron began combat operations in the summer of 1941. On July 2, during an escort mission toLille, France, rivalry between Pilot Officers William R. Dunn and Gregory Augustus “Gus” Daymond set off a controversy that would not be settled until many years after the end of the war. Dunn and Daymond did not have very much in common other than desire to fly. Gus Daymond joined the RAF age of 19 because of what he called a “sophomoric, but genuine, sense of social consciousness.” He had been working as a makeup man in Hollywood, which had a large Jewish community. “People on film sets used to listen to Hitler’s species between takes,” Daymond recalled. “We were immensely concerned and there was an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Well, I went tearing off to do my stuff.”
Bill Dunn came to the RAF by way of the army—he went to Canada in 1939and volunteered for the Seaforth Highlanders. Dunn told the sergeant when he enlisted that he was from Moosejaw. He had no idea where Moosejaw was, but it was the first Canadian town that came to mind.
After Dunkirk, in the spring of 1940, the British Air Ministry invited anyone with 500 or more hours of flying time to transfer to the RAF. Dunn didn’t have anywhere near 500 hours—he had more like 160 hours. But, he said, his pen must have slipped a bit on the application, “With my 160 looking like 560.” The Air Ministry didn’t say anything, so he didn’t either.
Dunn was accepted into the RAF. In the spring of 1941, he traded his regimental kilts for the RAF blue. He began an accelerated training course because of the urgent need for pilots. Pilot Officer Dunn was assigned to No. 71 Squadron in April 1941. He thought that his reception was “somewhat cool” when he first arrived, but he did not know why. It could have been because he was a new arrival, or because he had been an enlisted infantrymen “who had crawled from the muddy trenches into their blue heaven.”
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Dunn, in fact, had seen a lot more combat—with the Seaforth Highlanders—than any of the other Eagles had. He had even shot at two Stuka dive bombers that had attacked the Seaforths at Camp Borden, so he did not feel awed by the enemy. He did, however, feel like an outsider. His first combat mission, as well as Gus Daymond’s, was on July 2, and when it was over, he still was the “outsider.” A force of 12 Bristol Blenheim was sent to destroy the Lille electric power station that day, and 71 Squadron was one of the units assigned to protect the bombers. Going to Lille meant flying in the vicinity of Jagdgeschwader 26 “Schlegeter,” which had nine squadrons of Messerschmitt Bf-109Fs based at airfields in the Abbeville area. Jagdgeschwader 26, considered the elite of German fighter units the West, was commanded by Adolf Galland, who already had 70 Allied aircraft to his credit. The “Abbeville Boys,” as the British had nicknamed them, were not about to let any enemy formation go unchallenged. The RAF formation was attacked by a swarm of Bf-109s over Lille, which shot down four bombers. But the Luftwaffe quickly found that the escorting fighters gave them more of a battle than they had expected.
The first member of the Eagle Squadron to shoot down an enemy aircraft was Dunn, who destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf-109 at 12:35 p.m. Five minutes later, Daymond got the squadron’s second kill. He shot away a Messerschmitt’s right aileron. The enemy pilot jettisoned the canopy hood and bailed out—”just seemed to float out of his machine,” according to Daymond’s report. The squadron leader, Stanley T. Meares, also accounted for a Bf-109. But even though Dunn had downed the squadron’s first enemy aircraft, the media still reported that Daymond was first. Dunn was not happy about this error. He claimed that elitism within the squadron was responsible for Daymond’s being given the honor and for his being ignored.
But there were other things to worry about. On July 6, No. 71 Squadron was given another escort assignment. The RAF was going to Lille again, which meant another brush with the Abbeville Boys. Daymond shot down a Bf-109 in the resulting fight, and Dunn was credited with a half kill, sharing a Bf-109 with a Polish pilot from No. 306 Squadron.
Actual combat came as a nasty shock to some of the Eagles. They fully realized that they would be doing their share of the shooting at the Germans, but it somehow never had occurred to them that the Germans were going to shoot back.
One of Daymond’s first encounters had come when No. 71 Squadron was flying an operation with a Polish squadron. Over his earphones, Daymond heard a “terrific quacking” from the Poles: they had been jumped by a flight of Bf-109s. At first they called out in English, but when the fighting began to get frantic, they “blew their gaskets and began to garble-garble among themselves in Polish, and we didn’t know what the hell was happening,” noted Daymond.
Daymond looked all over the sky, trying to find the fighting. He spotted a Bf-109 going down, with a Pole chasing it and “shooting into mighty small pieces.” The Pole stayed right behind the German on the way down, shooting at the Messerschmitt as well as the “poor guy inside it.” For the first time, it dawned on Daymond that he was in the middle of a real war, and that “these guys were really playing for keeps.”
Throughout the month of July, the rivalry developed between Dunn and Daymond. The contest was to see who could destroy the most enemy airplanes, but the tone was not cordial. The lead changed hands several times. After sharing the Bf-109 with the Polish pilot, Dunn took a half-plane lead on July 6. Daymond then shot down a Bf-109, which gave him a half-plane advantage. Dunn regained the lead when he destroyed another Bf-109 near Lille on July 21. Daymond answered with his third kill, but on August 8, Dunn downed a Bf-109 west of Mardyck to gain a 3 1/2-to-3 advantage.
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On August 27, the entire squadron was up. Now flying Supermarine Spitfire IIs, it was assigned to escort nine Blenheim bombers to France. The Blenheims’ target was the Lille again. That meant yet another encounter with the Abbeville Boys and their yellow nosed Bf-109s.Anti-aircraft fire began popping all-around as soon as the formation crossed the enemy coast. Enemy fighters were expected at any time, and everyone kept a sharp eye out for them.
Dunn spotted three Bf-109s that had been pointed out by an alert squadron mate, but did not see the one behind him. His first inkling came when tracers started whizzing past him. Dunn shouted a warning to his flight, which immediately broke up into individual combats. Dunn followed suit, darting away from his pursuer, fortunate that the honlydamage had been done to his composure.
Dunn came out of his evasive maneuvers and could see fighting all around him. The yellow-nosed Messerschmitts were trying to get through to the bombers, and a Spitfire was trailing white smoke, but he was not under attack himself. Below him, he caught sight of two Bf-109s waiting to finish off any straggling Blenheim. Dunn pushed his stick forward and dove after them.
The German leader saw Dunn coming and quickly broke away. But his wingman executed a slow climbing turn to the left, right in front of Dunn.
When he was about 150 years away from his target, Dunn pressed the Spitfire’s firing button. He could see tracers from his eight .303-caliber machine guns converge on the Messerschmitt, and watched the enemy fighter falter under the impact. Dunn was able to close to within 50 years, close enough so that the oil from the stricken Messerschmitt splattered the Spitfire’s windscreen.
The German pilot never made any real effort to evade Dunn. His Bf-109 fell away, on fire, and crashed in a French field. Dunn felt a bit sorry for the German, who was probably just a green kid, right out of flight school. But Dunn added, “What the hell, they all count.”
Off in the distance, Dunn could see the Blenheim bombing the target, and there were still nine of them. He was keeping an eye on the bombers when another Messerschmitt locked onto his tail. His first warning came in the form of bullet holes in his port wing, along with a jagged tear near its tip. The Bf-109, closing in from behind, was firing tracer and cannon shells.
Dunn reacted instantly, he throttled back sharply, changed the propeller pitch to fine for more drag, opened the flaps and skidded the Spitfire out of the Messerschmitt’s gun path. The Spitfire’s speed dropped immediately, and the Bf-109 shot past his plane, skimming not more than 10 feet above Dunn’s head. He could see the black crosses on the German fighter, as well as the unit markings and a red rooster insignia on the side of the cockpit—signifying III Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 2 “Richthofen.”
The situation had quickly reversed, and now Dunn was behind the Bf-109. He fired a three- or four-second burst, which was all it took to set the Messerschmitt on fire. It rolled over and veered away, out of control. On the way down, its tail section broke away. Kill number two for the day, giving Dunn a total of 5 1/2.
Dunn spotted another Bf-109 flying about 500 feet below him and went after it. When he got within range, he fired a short burst and saw smoke trail from the German fighter. Dunn was about to fire another burst when four other Messerschmitts jumped him. The first one missed—cannon shells darted past Dunn and curved away. But the second Bf-109 was right on target. He heard “explosions and a banging like hail” against the Spitfire’s fuselage. A cannon shell blew a hole in his instrument panel; his foot was hit and went numb. His leg and his head also hurt. Dunn began to lose consciousness. Through his increasing visual haze, he could see bits of metal and broken glass on the cockpit floor.
Dunn had been dazed by the impact of the bullets and Cannon shells. When his head cleared, he found himself alone in the sky. He did not know how badly he had been injured. But his head still hurt and his right right boot was covered with blood. His Spitfire was still flyable, which meant that he would at least be able to get back home.
Dunn brought his damaged Spitfire down on the grass landing field at Hawkinge, near Folkstone, Kent, just inland from the Channel coast. In the Royal Victoria Hospital in Folkstone he was informed that a cannon shell had blown off the front of his right foot. Also, two machine gun bullets had gone through his right calf, and another had glanced off his skull, leaving a three-inch-long welt on his scalp. One of the doctors told Dunn that he was lucky to be alive. He already knew that.
Dunn was posted to a training command in Canada when he was well enough to return to duty. But before he left England, he decided to pay a visit to No. 71 Squadron at North Weald, Essex. He was not at all happy to find his personal belongings had been ransacked. Somebody had helped himself to Dunn’s socks, shirts, underwear, ties and towels. And to add insult to injury, what was left of his possessions had been carelessly dumped into a parachute bag that Dunn found on the floor in a puddle of water.
But he was even more unhappy to discover that Gus Daymond and his squadron mate, Chesley Peterson, had each been awarded the DFC, and that Daymond was officially credited with being the first American ace.
Dunn had collected his fifth victory nearly a month before Gus Daymond. And Peterson only had two victories. The DFC is usually awarded to a pilot with five victories. Dunn never received the DFC. “What about my victories?” Dunn asked. “Didn’t they count?”
Dunn attributes this snub to the squadron’s intelligence officer, J. Roland “Robbie” Robinson, a member of Parliament who had influence at the Air Ministry. (He later became Lord Martonmere.) Dunn felt that Robinson was always pushing his friends for promotions and decorations at the expense of anyone not in the charmed circle, and that he had worked “the DFC gongs for his two fair haired boys.”
Favoritism or not, Daymond was listed as the first American ace of World War II. Dunn knew the honor was his own, even though there was nothing he could do about it. Dunn transferred to the U.S. Army Air Force in 1943 and finished the war as a Lieutenant Colonel. (He also shot down three more enemy aircraft).) But in spite of his service record, he was always troubled because his claim had been overruled. “I always felt that my honesty was being questioned,” he said.
And so it remained for more than 20 years, until an accident brought Dunn’s claim to light again. In 1965, Dunn donated his old RAF uniform, along with some photos and documents, to the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. The museum’s director, Colonel William F. Curry, took a particular interest in Dunn’s logbook, especially in the dates of Dunn’s 5 1/2 victories in 1941. After careful study of the logbook, Curry asked Air Vice Marshal Sir Patrick Dunn (no relation to William Dunn), to recheck the official records. It seemed to him that William Dunn’s claim to being the first American ace might be valid after all.
Air Vice Marshal Dunn and W.J Taunton of the RAF Historical Branch did indeed recheck the official records. What they discovered confirmed both Curry’s suspicions and William Dunn’s facts—Dunn had shot down five enemy aircraft and shared a victory with a pilot from another squadronchile he was a member of No. 71 (Eagle) Squadron. And William Dunn had scored his fifth victory before Daymond or any other member of the all-American squadron had achieved a fifth.
In a letter dated March 19, 1968, Dunn received the following information from Raymond F. Toliver, historian of the American Fighter Aces Association: “The American Fighter Aces Association is happy to inform you that in a recently completed study in conjunction with the Royal Air Force, victory credits clearly indicate that you are America’s first fighter ace of World War II.” The letter went on to sy that the records of the association, which judges U.S. air victory claims, were being changed to reflect Dunn’s achievement.
It took more than a quarter of a century, but the controversy was finally over. “I was certainly glad to have the matter settled,” Dunn said.
The recent study’s conclusion, however, does not take into account the 9 1/2 victories (the fifth of which was confirmed on August 13, 1941) of Carl Davies, who is officially listed as South African, or the six enemy aircraft destroyed by Jimmy Davies of Bernardsville, N.J., who is really the first American-born ace war. Davies shot down his fifth German aircraft more than a year before Dunn scored his fifth victory, which means that the controversy isn’t over after all.
David Alan Johnson is a freelance history writer from England who now lives in Union, N.J. Suggested reading: The Eagle Squadrons, by Vern Haugland; Battle Over Britain, by Francis Mason; and Fighter Pilot, by William Dunn.
David Alan Johnson August 28, 2022 at 12:35AM
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