James Morehead, World War II Flying Ace, Dies at 95
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: March 19, 2012
As a boy in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, James B. Morehead stalked and hunted to eat. As a young Army flier in the Pacific, he stalked and hunted to live.
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U.S. Army Air Forces
His boyhood skills served him acutely well on April 25, 1942, over Darwin, Australia. Leading a squadron of eight P-40 Warhawks unwieldy, frustratingly slow fighter planes that were vastly outpaced by Japanese aircraft Lieutenant Morehead faced down, outthought and outmaneuvered a winged armada of about 30 Japanese bombers, guarded by a fleet of Japanese fighter planes.
He shot down three Japanese planes that day; his men shot down eight more, and the entire squadron returned to its base unscathed. Their victory, for which Lieutenant Morehead was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, was among the first to chip away at Japans seeming invincibility in the Pacific.
A career Air Force officer who retired as a colonel, he was among the most highly decorated flying aces of World War II, engaging in 20 dogfights and downing 8 enemy planes in the Pacific and Europe. In all, he earned two Distinguished Service Crosses (an Army decoration second only to the Medal of Honor), the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star and a number of other medals. Colonel Morehead, who in later years was a commercial real estate developer and a big-game hunter, died on March 11, at 95, in Petaluma, Calif., his family said.
James Bruce Morehead was born on Aug. 16, 1916, in Paoli, Okla., and raised in Washington, Okla. His father, Clem, was a small farmer who ran the town general store; his mother, Ophelia, was a teacher. As a boy during the Depression, James became a crack shot with a rifle, which helped put food on the table.
As a young man, he studied entomology at the University of Oklahoma before moving to California to try to earn a living. There he joined the Army Air Corps, as it was then known, in 1940. His exploits in the cockpit which included flying the nearly 80 miles from his base near Novato, Calif., to Sacramento upside down simply because he could earned him the nickname Wildman.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Lieutenant Morehead was in the hospital, recovering from injuries sustained in a midair training collision. Had he been fit, he would have been dispatched with his unit to the Philippines; many of his friends in the unit were captured there by the Japanese and died on the Bataan Death March.
Lieutenant Morehead was eventually sent to Australia, where he found himself with just two weeks to prepare untried young fliers to face the Japanese onslaught.
It's like sending the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team to oppose the Petaluma High School basketball team, he told The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, Calif., last year.
In shooting down three planes that April day in 1942, Lieutenant Morehead engaged the enemy in a calculated, deadly dance much as he had done with his boyhood quarry, reckoning when to lead, when to follow and precisely when to strike.
Aerial gunnery is a matter of interception, he said in a talk in 2002. You cannot look at the target, shoot at the target and ever hit the target. He added: You're going to hit eight feet behind that pheasant if you point right at him.
Elsewhere in the Pacific, Lieutenant Morehead shot down four enemy planes. On DDay, June, 6, 1944 he was by then a major he shot down his eighth and last plane of the war, a German Messerschmitt, over Romania.
During the Korean War, he served in Taiwan, training pilots in Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces. He later served at the Pentagon, retiring in 1967.
Colonel Morehead's first marriage, to Aldine Seeger, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Betty Bob Angerman, whom he married in 1960, died last year. He is survived by two daughters from his second marriage, Myrna Moritz and Melanie Morehead, and two grandchildren. A son, Jimmy, from his first marriage, died in the 1960s.
Colonel Morehead was the author of a memoir,
In My Sights,
published in 1997.
To the end of his life, Colonel Morehead cheerfully courted risk. In a telephone interview, his daughter Myrna described unusually exhilarating childhood car trips.
He'd always ask me and my friends,
What thrill do you want 1, 2 or 3? she recalled. And that would be the level of how scary you wanted it to be.
Level 1, the scariest, entailed barreling at about 70 miles per hour down the narrow, winding rural road that led to the family home near Petaluma. I usually wanted 1,
A version of this article appeared in print on March 20, 2012, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: James Morehead, 95, World War II Flying Ace.