To date, the United States Medal of Honor has been awarded on 103 occasions for actions involving the use of aircraft. Awards for actions that took place in a single flight are the norm, with 74 individual aircraft accounting for 82 of the 93 medals awarded for actions while in flight (including eight dual awards representing the same aircraft). Of those 75 planes, 41 were destroyed during the MoH action, while others were lost later. In a few cases the MoH recipient survived while the plane did not (Jimmy Doolittle's B-25, as an example). The reverse also occurred: Lts. Jack W. Mathis and Robert E. Femoyer received posthumous awards while their respective B-17s survived, only to be scrapped later.
Some aircraft were recognized following their crew's award but were not preserved, including Butch O'Hare's F4F, which wasn't stricken until two and one half years after his MoH action, as well as Maj. James H. Howard's "borrowed" P-51, whose identity remains a mystery. In wartime often the pressing needs for serviceable aircraft overcame their need for preservation in programs or museums that did not yet exist.
By far the most MoH's were issued to crewmen flying on Boeing aircraft. B-17 crewmen received 17 awards from 1942 to 1945. Eleven of the Flying Fortress MoH's were posthumous awards, while in 1945 a B-29 crewman was awarded the MoH for saving his plane despite crippling burns. Eleven Consolidated aircraft were involved in MoH missions, including two PBY Catalinas. The MoH awarded to B-24 crewmen (including one Navy PB4Y) were largely associated with the series of attacks on the Romanian oil refineries in 1943–44. The Grumman F4F Wildcat represents the most MoH's for a fighter aircraft serving in WWII by a sizable margin, with 8 MoH recipients. Seven F4F MoH's were to Marine Corps pilots, six of whom received their MoH for missions in the Solomon Islands during 1942–43. The lone Navy pilot was Lt. (j.g.) Edward H. "Butch" O'Hare, recognized as the Navy's first WWII ace. Cmdr. David McCampbell's two MoH missions in 1944 were in a F6F Hellcat bring Grumman's tally to nine MoH aircraft.
The Vietnam War produced 20 in-flight MoH awards. They include a very diverse group of 7 fixed-wing aircraft and four helicopters, which range from a Cessna O-1 to a Fairchild C-123 Provider, to a F-105 Thunderchief, plus the well-represented Bell Huey. The F-4 Phantom is represented only by pilot Lance Sijan, who was awarded a posthumous MoH for his exceptional courage as a POW. Notable for its absence is the A-6 Intruder.
Very few MoH aircraft survive today, especially since nearly half of all awards have been posthumous, and with the exception of the USMC, the military branches have done a poor job of preserving MoH aircraft that did survive. Today four MoH combat aircraft still exist, plus two non-combat aircraft and the parts of one MoH F4F.
- Ryan NYP. Charles Lindbergh's custom Ryan aircraft is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
- Fokker Trimotor. Richard Evelyn Byrd and Floyd Bennett's Trimotor, the Josephine Ford, is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
- Douglas A-1E Skyraider (s/n 52-132649) is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. In 1967, one year after the action for which its pilot, Maj, Bernard Fisher, was awarded the MoH, the aircraft crashed on a training flight. Being well-used and in bad condition, it was sent back to the U.S. for scrapping. Fortunately its identity was recognized by a staff member at the scrapping site, and the aircraft was sent to the Museum for preservation. The aircraft is on display in the Museum's Modern Flight gallery.
- Bell UH-1C Huey (s/n 66-00528) is owned by the National Warplane Museum in Elmira, New York. This is the aircraft for which Sgt. Rodney Yano was awarded the MoH for his actions on 1 January 1969. On that date Sgt. Yano, serving as a volunteer crew chief aboard Maj. John Bahnsen's command helicopter of the 11th Cavalry Regiment, was dropping grenades from the aircraft to mark a target for fighter-bombers. A phosphorus grenade detonated prematurely and began to ignite the remaining ammunition on board. Despite the loss of his left hand, severe burns, and loss of sight, Sgt. Yano searched through the aircraft as the explosives detonated around him, throwing the ammunition overboard. His action saved the aircraft and its crew. Sgt. Yano, the son of a Hawaiian fisherman, died that night of his injuries.
- Bell UH-1E (BuNo. 154760) is currently undergoing restoration at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Museum in Quantico, Virginia. This is the aircraft for which Capt. Steve Pless was awarded the MoH for his actions in August 1967. His aircraft was diverted to the site of an Army helicopter that had been shot down behind enemy lines. Four GI's survived the crash and were pinned down by enemy fire. Capt. Pless fired his machine guns and rockets at the enemy forces then landed his helicopter between them and the trapped Americans. Three of the GIs were able to board the aircraft while his copilot and crew chief killed additional enemy troops, some less than 10 feet away. Capt. Pless got the overloaded aircraft airborne and returned safely to base. Two of the rescued soldiers died, but the survivor owed his life to Capt. Pless and his crew.
- Boeing CH-46D (BuNo. 153389) is on display at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. It has been restored to the marking of its MoH mission, including the name Blood, Sweat & Tears. In addition to its MoH action, this remarkable aircraft is reported to have flown in every major Marine Corps operation since Vietnam, including Beirut, Grenada, Kuwait and Somalia.
- F4F-3 (BuNo. 4019) (parts). Capt. Henry T. Elrod was awarded a posthumous MoH in recognition for his heroism while flying this aircraft, known as Mike Fox 11, over Wake Island in December 1941. A postwar memorial on Wake featured the cowling nose ring and propeller of an F4F believed to be Capt. Elrod's aircraft. When the tribute was dismantled around 1965 the parts were sent to the Marine Corps Museum. When the National Air and Space Museum restored its FM-1 the only cowling nose ring that could be located was the one taken from the Wake Island memorial. Though it cannot be proven conclusively that the cowling nose ring is indeed from Mike Fox 11, leathernecks certainly like to believe that it is.
One near-survivor was C-123 (55-4542), the aircraft MoH recipient Maj. Joe Jackson was piloting when he made his daring rescue of Air Force personnel trapped on an airstrip being overrun by Communist forces in 1968. By the time the Air Force History Office learned the aircraft still existed it had been transferred to the South Vietnamese government, who later transferred it to the Thai government. The aircraft was apparently not scrapped until the early 1990s.
In-Flight Medal of Honor Awards: Aircraft
|Manufacturer||Model||Medals of Honor awarded||Surviving plane|
|Bell||UH-1||8 (6 Army, 1 USAF, 1 USMC)||2|
|Consolidated||B-24/PB4Y||9 (1 Navy)||0|
|DeHavilland||Model 4||4 (2 Army, 2 USMC)||0|
|North American||P-51/F-6||3 (2 WWII, 1 Korea)||0|
|Vought||F4U||4 (3 WWII, 1 Korea)||0|
|Manufacturer||Model||Medals of Honor awarded||Surviving plane|
- Tillman, Barrett (2002). Above and Beyond: the Aviation Medals of Honor. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Press.
- Tillman, Barrett (April 2008). "The Rarest Birds". pp. 66–72.
- Medal of Honor Recipients of the Vietnam War at the United States Army Center of Military History
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