A top salute for local ace

World War II Fighter Ace Mike Wolf of Hansville visits with Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Bremerton, at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Wolf and Kilmer attended a celebration honoring Wolf and other Congressional Gold Medal recipients. At right, the medal. Office of Rep. Photo by Derek Kilmer / Contributed


HANSVILLE — John T. “Mike” Wolf was 20 in 1941, getting close to graduating from Long Beach City College, a self-described Southern California beach bum.

Then, Pearl Harbor was attacked. “After Pearl Harbor, everyone enlisted,” Wolf said. “Everyone ‘turned to.’ ”

Wolf and his buddies decided to enlist in the Coast Guard, but the rail-thin Wolf was rejected as being too skinny. He enlisted in the Navy Air Corps and, with two years of college under his belt, was selected for cadet flight school.

Within two years of completing training, he would down enough enemy planes to be designated an “ace” fighter pilot.

In recognition of their war contributions in World War II and subsequent wars, three dozen American Fighter Aces — including Wolf, of Hansville — received Congress’ highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, during a May 20 ceremony in the nation’s capital.

The war-time pilots, who earned the designation of “Fighter Ace” in multiple wars by shooting down at least five enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat, received this national honor in a ceremony with congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. with friends and family present. The ceremony took place at 3 p.m. EST in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitor Center and was broadcast live over the web at Speaker.gov/live.

“This medal is meant to honor the feats these men achieved and their sacrifices their families made to keep the skies — and the world — safe for democracy,” Speaker of the House John Boehner said before the ceremony.

Convened by Seattle’s Museum of Flight, the May 20 ceremony recognizes the accomplishments of the 1,447 American Aces who achieved the elite designation. Only 77 Aces are alive as of this writing, and approximately 36 of them gathered in Washington, D.C. to receive the recognition in person.

Each Fighter Ace received a bronze replica of the gold medal, which was given to the Smithsonian Institution to be displayed and made available for research. The Congressional Gold Medal for the Fighter Aces was designed and struck by the U.S. Mint.

The ceremony came a year after Congress unanimously passed legislation to recognize the Aces with the highest honor Congress can bestow upon civilians — the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill (American Fighter Aces Congressional Gold Medal Act; Pub.L. 113-105) to honor the Aces was introduced by Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, and Rep. Denny Heck, D-Washington, with Sens. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia and James M. Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, introducing the Senate bill. The legislation was signed into law May 23, 2014 by President Obama.

A photo of the young fighter ace, from Wolf’s scrapbook. Photo by Richard Walker / Veteran's Life

“The American Fighter Aces achieved a level of aviation excellence for our nation when it mattered most,” said Doug King, president and CEO of The Museum of Flight in Seattle. “We’re proud to play our part in honoring them and join our members of Congress in saluting them.”

Seattle’s Museum of Flight is home to the American Fighter Aces Association and an extensive collection of artifacts, documents and exhibits that tell the legendary stories of the Fighter Aces. It supports more than 700 “Friends” of the Aces in AFAA chapters across the country who are dedicated to championing the stories of these brave pilots, preserving and sharing their legacy.

While the stories of American Fighter Aces will live on at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, their numbers are dwindling, adding urgency to the efforts to recognize their importance to American history. Of the 77 remaining Aces still alive, the oldest Ace is 104 years old and the youngest Ace is 72.

“Because wars are fought differently today, the American Fighter Ace is indeed passing into history at a rapid rate,” King said before the ceremony. “For now, our single purpose is to get as many of these living Aces as possible to Washington, D.C. for this celebration of their bravery and their lives.”

The museum enlisted the volunteer support of more than 20 pilots and a fleet of small- and mid-sized jets to fly the Aces and their families to Washington, D.C., a flight that many of the volunteer pilots called a privilege and honor.

The stories of the Fighter Aces cover some of the most formative periods in aviation history. Some gained their victories in open-cockpit biplanes, others in the powerful propeller-driven fighters of World War II, and still others in the jets that fought over Korea and Southeast Asia. Aces come from each major combat branch of the U.S. military and nearly every state in the union. A majority of the Aces still alive today earned Ace status in World War II. The last fighter pilot to receive the elite designation fought in the Vietnam War.

“If there’s an elite among fighter pilots, it’s these men,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles “Chick” Cleveland, president of the American Fighter Aces Association. “They helped shorten the wars and saved lives. These men are disappearing but must not be forgotten. It is a personal privilege to be part of this group.”

Cleveland is a Korean War Ace who flew F-86 Sabre jets in MiG Alley.

About the Congressional Gold Medal: Since the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Each medal honors a particular individual, institution or event.

Although the first recipients included citizens who participated in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Congress broadened the scope of the medal to include actors, authors, entertainers, musicians, pioneers in aeronautics and space, explorers, lifesavers, notables in science and medicine, athletes, humanitarians, public servants and foreign recipients.

Online: www.history.house.gov/Institution/Gold-Medal/Gold-Medal-Recipients/.