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Oak Harbor Fighter Ace honored

Now retired Navy Captain Lee Paul Mankin was just 21 when he shot down his first Japanese plane. It was a twin engine “Betty” — a bomber plane.

He was piloting one of six Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighters that took off from Henderson Airfield on Guadalcanal, Aug. 7, 1942. They were going up against 23 bombers and 10 Zero fighters headed for the tiny but vital Pacific island.

Mankin shot down a bomber with his wing-mounted 50-caliber machine guns, but three of the Navy planes and pilots didn’t make it back.

Now 83, tears well in Mankin’s eyes and he has to stop talking for a moment.

“Things like that don’t leave you,” he said shakily. “I remember it vividly.”

In just two months Mankin went on to shoot down four more Japanese planes in the Pacific Theater including two fighting Zeroes, earning him the title of “Fighter Ace.”

As part of VF-5, the only fully enlisted fighting squadron, Mankin has the distinction of being the Navy’s only enlisted Fighter Ace in World War II. He later received a commission and retired as a captain.

“We were the hottest squadron in the Navy,” Mankin said. “We had great incentive to outperform the officers, and we did.”

He will be honored Saturday, June 5, at the black tie opening gala of the Personal Courage Wing at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, as one of “America’s Heroes.” The procession of heroes will include astronauts, commanding officers of Western Washington military bases, Medal of Honor recipients, The Flying Tigers, Tuskegee Airmen and other Fighting Aces.

More than 1,000 people are expected to attend the fund-raising event, and organizers expect contributions to the museum to top $1 million. Individual tickets start at $500, but include complimentary valet service.

Mankin said the invitation was a complete surprise, but he has rented a tux for the occasion. He will attend with his wife of 60 years, Kathleen “Kat” Mankin.

“I feel pretty proud of it,” he said of the honor.

He has only been lauded once before for his war contribution, when the Museum of Flight in Palm Springs, Calif., taped an interview with him. It is now in the Library of Congress, a lasting tribute to the service given by those whose numbers are rapidly dwindling.

It doesn’t take much prompting to take Mankin back to those days, when men were fighting for their country, and for each other.

Mankin remembers landing at Guadalcanal with his 19-plane squadron, after being stationed aboard the USS Enterprise. A young Marine climbed on his Wildcat and greeted him enthusiastically with, “Wait until Tojo sees all these planes — you can have my chow!”

Mankin explained the Marines stationed on the island had foxholes for land-based combat, but no air cover or anti-aircraft guns to protect them from the Japanese bombers that droned overhead.

When the fliers got the word that a 200-man Japanese invasion with four landing barges was headed for the island, they took to the air on a strafing mission.

“The Japanese lost 200 men, we lost zero,” Mankin said. At the time his thought was that none of them would be shooting at that jubilant young Marine.

“I felt pretty good about that.”

The youthful pilot took to the battle in the sky with a confidence granted only to the young.

“Somehow, even though I knew I could be shot down, I never really minded going up against the Japanese fighters,” he said. “I was so confident — I didn’t think they were as good as me.”

As a Wildcat pilot, Mankin was also navigator and gunner, manning the gun controls single-handedly with a button on the control stick. The six wing-mounted machine guns were locked in position, so the only way to aim at a target was to point the plane directly at it. That limitation governed how the pilots could approach their targets, Mankin said.

He made a mistake in one battle that almost cost him his life. The Japanese bombers were equipped with “stingers,” guns mounted on their tails.

“We were told not to get on their tails, but I found myself sucked in behind,” Mankin said.

The resulting gunfire pierced the body of the plane, went through the rudder pedal and lodged in his boot. He has kept the boot as a memento.

In another fight a good portion of his plane’s tail was shot off by a gunner on a beach. He managed to land safely, and flew the next few missions with a patched up “polka dot” tail.

After his duty in the Battle of the Solomon Islands, his squadron was sent to the Atlantic on an anti-submarine mission. They reported aboard the USS Block Island, which had the distinction of being the only aircraft carrier sunk in the Atlantic during the war. Mankin was onboard in the hangar deck when it was hit by a torpedo from a German U boat.

“I thought I was going to drown,” he said. It would be an ironic ending for a pilot who had gained Fighter Ace status for his airborne heroics.

By the third torpedo, all hands abandoned ship, and Mankin went over the side with the rest of the crew. An accompanying destroyer plucked more than 600 sailors from the frigid Atlantic, all the while knowing the sub was still in the area.

“It was a sitting duck,” Mankin said. Another destroyer sunk the German sub, and the survivors were taken to Casablanca.

Mankin married his bride Kathleen March 20, 1944, and went on to raise five children. Only one son, the oldest, joined the Navy, and he became a dentist.

Life goes on, and most of the time memories of service during war time become part of the background. But every once in a while they take center stage. Lest we forget.

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