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KEARBY, NEEL EARNEST (1911–1944). Neel Earnest Kearby, Medal of Honor recipient, was born on June 5, 1911, in Wichita Falls, Texas. He was the son of Dr. John Gallatin Kearby, Jr., and Bessie Lee (Stone) Kearby. He spent part of his childhood in Mineral Wells before the family moved to Arlington in 1924. Kearby graduated from Arlington High School in 1928 and attended North Texas Junior Agricultural College (now the University of Texas at Arlington) in 1930 and 1931. Following three years of employment in Dallas, he enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin to study business administration in the fall of 1934. He finished his coursework in late 1936 before receiving his diploma in June 1937. By that time he had joined the United States Army Air Corps and was already in flight training at Randolph Field in San Antonio. There he met Virginia King Cochran, and they eventually married and had three children.

After his commission and the completion of a number of assignments, Kearby was chosen to lead the 348th Fighter Group. As commander, he developed highly successful fighting tactics with the P-47 Thunderbolt in the Pacific Theater. On October 11, 1943, Colonel Kearby volunteered to lead a flight of four fighters to reconnoiter the strongly held enemy bases at Wewak, New Guinea. After securing important tactical information on four enemy installations, he saw an enemy fighter below. He made an attack and shot it down. His small flight then saw twelve enemy bombers escorted by thirty-six fighter aircraft. With numerical odds of twelve to one and low fuel supplies, he led his flight on a diving attack. He shot down three planes, then observed one of his comrades with two of the enemy fighters in pursuit. He attacked and destroyed both, then escaped into the clouds. After calling his flight back together he led them safely to a friendly base. Kearby had destroyed six enemy aircraft during one mission, the most ever for an American fighter pilot at that time. It was for this mission that he was awarded the Medal of Honor, presented in a special ceremony by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Kearby was promoted to a staff job at the headquarters of the 5th Air Force Fighter Command in November 1943 but received permission to continue flying combat missions. He had just claimed his twenty-second victory, when he was shot down on March 5, 1944, over Wewak, New Guinea. He had become the highest-scoring P-47 pilot in the Pacific Theater and, in addition to the Medal of Honor, had received two Silver Stars, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, five Air Medals, and a Purple Heart. In 1947 members of a Royal Australian Air Force “Searcher Team” recovered Kearby’s body. He was buried in Dallas at Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery on July 23, 1949.

A missile facility at Sheppard Air Force Base was named in Kearby’s honor in November 1959. Many of his medals and uniforms were donated for display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. In 1995 his wrecked plane (which Kearby had named Fiery Ginger IV after his wife) was discovered in the New Guinea jungle. Eventually some salvageable parts were recovered and donated to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in the early 2000s. A Texas Historical Marker honoring Kearby was erected in Arlington in 2009.


Dallas Morning News, November 12, 1959. “Col. Neel E. Kearby: Pacific Thunderbolt Ace,” National Museum of the USAF—Fact Sheet (, accessed February 21, 2013. Committee on Veterans' Affairs, United States Senate, Medal of Honor Recipients, 1863–1973 (Washington: GPO, 1973). Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Robert Hucker, "Neel Kearby, Thunderbolt Ace," Air Classics, July 1979. San Antonio Express, March 16, 1944.

Art Leatherwood, rev. by Richard Aghamalian


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Art Leatherwood, rev. by Richard Aghamalian, "KEARBY, NEEL EARNEST," Handbook of Texas Online (, accessed September 18, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on February 26, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.