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 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 during the fall of 1934 to study business administration. He finished his coursework in late 1936 before receiving a 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 and married Virginia King Cochran, and they had three children before Kearby was sent overseas during World War II.
By July of 1943 Colonel Kearby was the commanding officer of the 348th Fighter Group in the Southwest Pacific Theater. His fighter pilots achieved spectacular success flying their famous P-47 “Thunderbolts” against Japanese forces in the New Guinea area. Described as the “perfect combat leader,” Kearby was a superb pilot and tactician, credited in particular with the development of combat tactics used to maximize the high-altitude capability and extraordinary diving speed of the massive P-47. Often leading missions himself, he emerged as one of America’s greatest fighter pilots, credited with twenty-two aerial victories in only a few months of combat.
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 was leading a three-plane formation and had just claimed his twenty-second victory, when he was shot down on March 5, 1944, over Wewak, New Guinea.
It was not until 1949 that his remains were recovered and returned to Dallas, Texas, where he was buried with full military honors at Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery. Survived by his wife and three young sons, he was laid to rest on July 23, 1949, next to the burial site of his older brother, Army Maj. John Gallatin Kearby III, who also died during the war.
Colonel Kearby is remembered as one of America’s most acclaimed fighter pilots. In addition to the Medal of Honor, he received five Air Medals, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars, and the Purple Heart. Within a few months of his death, the Dallas Morning News hailed Kearby as “one of Texas immortals,” and Time magazine described him as “one of the great U.S. fighter pilots of World War II.” The United States Air Force honored him in 1959 with the dedication of Neel Kearby Hall, a missile training facility at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. An exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force features a display of his medals and a full-sized replica of his legendary P-47 Thunderbolt, Fiery Ginger, named in honor of his wife, Virginia.
In addition to honors bestowed by the military, the Texas Historical Commission issued a state historical marker citing Kearby’s military achievements and Texas heritage. On November 13, 2010, the historical marker and a life-sized statue of the fallen hero were unveiled on the grounds of the public library in Arlington, Texas. Colonel Kearby’s medals and Medal of Honor citation are permanently displayed at Arlington’s city hall.
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Dallas Morning News, November 12, 1959. “Col. Neel E. Kearby: Pacific Thunderbolt Ace,” National Museum of the USAF—Fact Sheet (http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=8109), 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.
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Kearby, Neel Earnest,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 15, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
February 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
October 7, 2014
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: