Americans have always loved their real-life Horatio Alger characters. They fired our imagination as children and were worthy of emulating. I hate to see many of those who were an inspiration to me disappear from our histories.
A perfect example is Kenneth Ambrose Walsh.
Ken Walsh was born in 1916 in Brooklyn, New York. His grandparents were Irish immigrants. His dad was an electrician. Walsh was a good athlete and excelled in track. In 1933, just three weeks past his 17th birthday, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Three months later he graduated from boot camp at Parris Island. After several months more of training, he became an aircraft mechanic. He was still not 18. Serving as a mechanic on the flight line whetted his appetite for flying, and he applied for flight school. Meeting all the requirements and passing all the tests, he entered flight class 89-E at Pensacola Naval Air Station in March 1936.
Though not having flown as a civilian and having left high school at 16, Walsh excelled in flight school and was awarded his wings in April 1937. He was only 20 and only Private Walsh—a private with wings of gold! The Corps promoted him to corporal, but he was still the lowest-ranking and youngest pilot in the Marines.
His first duty station was Brown Field at Quantico. For several years he flew with Marine Scouting Squadron One (VMS-1), but watching fighter pilots perform led Walsh to request a transfer to a fighter squadron. One of the pilots Walsh watched was Greg Boyington, who would later win fame as Pappy Boyington, the commander of the Black Sheep squadron in the Pacific. Although four years older than Walsh, Boyington also got his wings in April 1937. Boyington and his buddy, Freeman Williams, put on an unauthorized mock dogfight above—occasionally barely above—Quantico that lasted an hour and caused all Marines to stop what they were doing and watch. Both pilots played in the skies for too long. Williams ran out of fuel on his final approach to Brown and made a dead-stick landing. Boyington went dry before he reached Brown but nonetheless made a perfect landing—on the Quantico rifle range. Both pilots were disciplined—but what a show. Walsh was hooked.
By June 1941, Walsh was flying a fighter, the Grumman F4F Wildcat, with VMF-1. When the Japanese launched their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Walsh was a sergeant with 2,000 hours of flying time. War meant a rapid expansion of the Marine Corps and promotions for Walsh. In May 1942, he was made a warrant officer, commonly called gunner in the Marines, and in October he was commissioned 2nd lieutenant. Walsh now had not only gold wings but gold bars.
At the same time Walsh was promoted to lieutenant he was assigned to a fighter squadron in the process of forming, VMF-124, based at Camp Kearny (soon renamed Miramar) near San Diego. The squadron would be the first to receive the new Chance Vought F4U Corsair. Because of the characteristic sound the fighter made in a dive, the pilots of VMF-124 chose “Whistling Death” for the squadron’s moniker.
Early in 1943, Walsh and the other pilots of VMF-124 shipped out of San Diego harbor for the southwest Pacific aboard the famous Matson cruise ship SS Lurline, now pressed into service as a troop transport. At the same time, the squadron’s Corsairs were shipped below decks on the carrier Kitty Hawk. Lurline took the pilots to New Caledonia, where they boarded a destroyer, which carried them to Espiritu Santo, an Allied base in the New Hebrides. There they met Kitty Hawk and their Corsairs. The pilots then flew 600 miles north to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in the Solomons. The Marines had only recently wrested control of the island from the Japanese, but the other islands of the Solomon chain were still controlled by the sons of Nippon.
Arriving at Henderson on the morning of February 12, VMF-124 flew its first mission before noon. The boys of the Whistling Death Squadron escorted a PBY Catalina on a 500-mile round trip to rescue two Wildcat pilots, who had ditched in Sandfly Bay on the western shores of Vella Lavella. The pilots had made it to shore and were under the protective care of a coastwatcher. They were successfully extracted and flown back to Guadalcanal. It was one long day for the VMF-124 pilots—they flew some 1,100 miles and logged nine hours of flight time.
The next day they were in the air again, this time escorting Consolidated B-24 Liberators on a bombing run to the Kahili airfields on the island of Bougainville at the northern end of the Solomons. They caught the Japanese by surprise and returned without incident. February 14 would be different. Higher command decided on the same mission again. This time the Japanese were ready. Dozens of Zeros were waiting in the skies above Kahili, and dozens more took off from the Kahili airfields as the outnumbered Americans approached. The Japanese shot down eight bombers and two Corsairs against a loss of three Zeros. The Americans called it the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
The day marked the beginning of air-to-air combat for Walsh. He learned what the veteran Wildcat pilots had told him was true: Constantly strive to gain altitude over the Zero; don’t dogfight at low altitudes; don’t attempt to out-turn the Zero, especially at low altitude or slow speeds; work as a team with your wingman. The Zero (Mitsubishi A6M) was Japan’s premier fighter, flown by her best pilots. Called “Zeke” in the U.S. Navy’s identification code, the light and maneuverable plane excelled in dogfights. Blowing Zeros out of the sky earned a Navy or Marine pilot a reputation quickly.
On April 1, Walsh scored his first kills, shooting down one “Val,” the Aichi D3A dive bomber, and two Zeros. Three days later VMF-124 was given some R&R in Australia. After nearly two months in combat and living in the heat and humidity of malarial Guadalcanal, Australia seemed like heaven. They were back in action a month later, and on May 13 Walsh shot down three more Zeros, confirmed, and a fourth, probable. All of a sudden he was not only an ace (five kills or more) but the first Corsair pilot to become one. Lt. Ken Walsh was beginning to gain a reputation, not only for his piloting skills but for his aggressive tactics.
On June 1, Walsh was promoted to 1st lieutenant, and four days later he shot down a Zero and a “Pete,” the Mitsubishi F1M seaplane. By July VMF-124 had completed its second combat tour, and the boys were off for R&R in Australia again. A month later they were back at it, and on August 12 Walsh shot down two Zeros and had a third probable in a wild melee in the skies over New Georgia, some 200 miles up the Solomon chain from Guadalcanal. However, the Zeros had pumped enough rounds into Walsh’s Corsair to set it aflame and shoot away some of the plane’s control cables and surfaces. When another Zero jumped on Walsh’s tail to finish him, his wingman came to the rescue and chased off the Japanese fighter.
Somehow, Walsh managed to pilot his burning Corsair to an emergency landing strip on New Georgia. With little control left, he skidded into a parked Corsair on the side of the strip. Walsh climbed out of the cockpit banged up but in relatively good shape. Both Corsairs were beyond repair, though, and would be cannibalized for parts.
Two days after Walsh’s close call, VMF-124 relocated from Henderson to a recently captured Japanese airfield at Munda, on the southwest coast of New Georgia. The next day, August 15, Walsh was flying combat air patrol over the landing beaches at Barakoma at the southeastern end of Vella Lavella when a large flight of Japanese fighters and dive bombers attacked, determined to destroy the landing force. Walsh led the way into the enemy flight, which had a 6-1 numerical advantage, and got the first kill. Although his own plane was shot up, he dove his Corsair into the Japanese flight again and again, shooting down two more Japanese planes before he had to break off. He limped back to Munda and landed safely, but his plane had dozens of holes in it and extensive damage. It would be scraped for parts.
On August 21, Walsh blew another two Zeros out of the sky and had a third probable. Two days later, he got another kill. Walsh now had 16 victories, but his big day was still to come. That day did not have an auspicious beginning. On August 30 he took off from Munda on a mission escorting B-24s to bomb Kahili. His plane soon developed engine trouble; dejected, he turned for home. The coughing and sputtering engine got him only as far as Vella Lavella, and he landed on an emergency strip.
Once on the ground, he learned there was a fueled and armed Corsair he could borrow. He was immediately back in the air trying to catch up with his squadron. He had almost done so when he came upon a flight of 50 Japanese fighters, who were about to pounce on the B-24s guarded by VMF-124. Unhesitatingly, he dove into the Japanese formation and began a solo attack. He shot down two Zeros before more Corsairs got into the action. Before Walsh’s plane was badly damaged he flamed two more Zeros. He broke off and sputtered south toward Munda. He made it as far as Vella Lavella and was forced to ditch offshore. It was his third water landing, and he survived once more.
During September, VMF-124 was rotated off New Georgia. By mid-October the squadron was back on terra firma in the United States. Three months later, Ken Walsh was ordered to the White House. On February 8, 1944, he arrived with his family in tow. For his actions in the Solomons on August 15 and August 30 he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt and promoted to captain. Walsh later said, “Here I was a poor Irish kid from Brooklyn when I got the Medal of Honor. I never could foresee being so honored and respected in society.”
After duty as a flight instructor, Captain Walsh returned to combat with VMF-222 in the Philippines in April 1945. From April to June the squadron was based on Samar. Walsh flew ground-support missions, strafing and bombing Japanese troops. In June, VMF-222 was transferred to Okinawa, and again he flew ground-support missions. Then on June 22 came a kamikaze attack, and he had an opportunity to intercept the pilots who were fighting to die. He blew one of them out of the sky to the relief of sailors on a ship below. It was Walsh’s 21st victory and his 17th Zero. He spent the last weeks of the war as the operations officer of the squadron.
Walsh flew again during the Korean War, but as a C-54 transport pilot. He retired from the Corps in 1962 as a lieutenant colonel, normally the highest rank mustangs were allowed to attain, and spent the rest of his years in Orange County, California, until his death in 1998. To this day he remains the fourth-leading ace in Marine Corps history, behind only Pappy Boyington, Joe Foss, and Bob Hanson—all Medal of Honor recipients themselves.