World War II fighter ace Fritz Payne dead at 104; helped US, Allies win Battle of Guadalcanal

Frederick R. “Fritz” Payne, a World War II fighter ace who left his mark on aviation and wartime history by shooting down six Japanese warplanes during the Battle of Guadalcanal, a bloody, months-long confrontation that helped change the course of the war, has died at age 104.

The retired Marine Corps brigadier general, who was believed to be the oldest surviving U.S. fighter ace, died on Aug. 6 at his home in Rancho Mirage.

Hundreds had turned out to honor him last Memorial Day at the Palm Springs Air Museum, which on Tuesday confirmed his death.

“He was an extraordinary guy, and we can only hope that we can live up to his and others’ example and carry on in their footsteps and remember what they did,” said the museum’s director, Fred Bell.

What Payne did between September and October 1942 was take to the skies in an F4F Wildcat and shoot down four Japanese bombers and two fighter planes during a crucial, months-long battle for control of the Pacific that Allied forces had launched with no clear indication they could win.

“Fritz came along at a time when we were essentially losing the war,” said Bell, adding Payne and others who “stood their ground at Guadalcanal” kept the Japanese from gaining control of the Pacific Ocean from the east coast of Australia to the western United States. The battle marked a turning point in the war’s Pacific theater.

Payne, meanwhile, would be honored with the Navy Cross, silver star, Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals during a long military career.

When Congress decided earlier this year to honor all of the nation’s fighter aces with a Gold Medal, its highest civilian honor, he was too frail to attend the ceremony in Washington, D.C. Instead, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Springs, brought it to him at the Air Museum.

“Terrific,” he said when it was presented.

“He was a very humble guy,” noted Bell.

The title fighter ace is reserved for those who have shot down at least five enemy aircraft in battle. Technically Payne was awarded 5 ½ kills because he had help from another pilot in downing one plane.

Frederick Rounsville Payne, Jr., was born July 31, 1911, in Elmira, N.Y., the son of a Spanish-American War veteran.

He attended the U.S. Naval Academy for two years before completing his college education at the University of Arizona in 1935. Upon graduation he had hoped to join the Navy’s cadet program but learned it was full.

“My father said, ‘You’re a college graduate, go to the recruiting office and tell them you’d like to join the Marine Corps,'” he told the Palm Springs Desert Sun in 2010.

So he did and the Marines made him a second lieutenant. When he retired in 1958 he was a brigadier general.

Later he worked for Southern California Edison, managing the utility company’s aircraft operations until retiring in 1976.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Dorothy. Survivors include three children and three grandchildren.