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The Last Flying Tiger Ace

By Zeke Striker

American Volunteer Group crew chief Edgar B. McClure did not become a Naval Aviator until he was 27, did not become an ace until he was 29, was not officially recognized for the achievement until he was 70, and even now, at the age of 90, there are few people who realize that he holds the distinction of being the last Flying Tiger to become an ace.

Edgar Bradford McClure was born in Morrison, Illinois on January 9, 1916. Little is known about his early life except that at some point in the late 1930s he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After finishing basic training, he underwent and completed the course to become an Aviation Machinist's Mate. He served in this capacity in the Naval Aviation branch until the late spring of 1941, when he was recruited for service in China by CAMCO. He received an honorable discharge, convenience of the government, and reported to San Francisco for embarkation to the Orient. He sailed on July 11, 1941, aboard the Danish liner Jaegersfontein with a contingent of 123 other personnel recruited for service with the First American Volunteer Group.

McClure working on P-40 Left: Crew chief Ed McClure (in pith helmet) working on a wrecked P-40

McClure arrived in Rangoon, Burma, on August 16, 1941, and, after a period of orientation and training, was eventually assigned as a crew chief with the 1st Pursuit Squadron in Kunming, China. In January, 1942, when a contingent of 1st Squadron pilots were sent to Rangoon to reinforce the 2nd Pursuit Squadron in aiding the RAF with the defense of Burma, McClure was one of five crew chiefs (the others were Schaper, Gove, Graham, and Uebele) who volunteered for detached service there to take care of their planes. The crew chiefs boarded the AVG Beechcraft, piloted by Moon Chen, and flew to Toungoo from which they caught the train for Rangoon. In an arduous journey that took them 14 hours to travel 200 miles, they found their route in such a state of disarray that the only food they could muster was a can of pork & beans and some ketchup, which they split five ways.

Within four months, the situation in Burma had deteriorated to the point that the British (and thus the AVG) were forced to evacuate. When the British began destroying all surplus supplies on the docks of Rangoon, McClure and the other crew chiefs commandeered five jeeps and filled them with whatever materiel would be either useful for the AVG or profitable for resale. After returning to Mingaladon with a radio for pilots George Burgard and Charlie Bond, McClure and Burgard returned to the docks with a ten-ton truck and loaded it with fifteen radios and several bolts of fabric, which they hoped to sell in China for $1,500. McClure then joined the convoy of the "Burma Roadsters" which departed for China on February 23 and did not reach their destination until May 15, 1942.

He completed his service with the AVG and upon disbandment on July 4, 1942, chose to continue serving in China. Unlike the majority of those who chose to stay and be inducted into the Army Air Force, McClure was one of a mere handful (Mihalko, Sasser, and Ernst being the others) who elected to stay but returned to the Navy. As a result, McClure was commissioned an Ensign in the Navy on July 4, 1942.

After finishing his tour of duty in China, Ensign McClure returned to the United States where he applied for and was accepted into training to become a Naval Aviator. He earned his wings of gold in 1943 at the advanced age of 27 (mid-war requirements had been relaxed such that an 18 year-old George H.W. Bush earned his wings the same year) working his way up from the "Yellow Peril" to become a fighter pilot, flying the F4F Wildcat. While serving stateside and preparing for combat deployment, McClure was promoted to Lieutenant, Junior Grade on July 1, 1943, and to Lieutenant on October 1, 1944.

In late 1944, he was assigned to VF-9, where he transitioned to the F6F Hellcat and was deployed to the Pacific theater, arriving in the Admiralty Islands on January 1, 1945. By this time the squadron strength had swelled to 72 pilots; five days after arrival, it was decided to divide the squadron into two separate squadrons, VF-9 and VBF-9. When VBF-9 was formed on January 6, 1945, McClure was among those who joined the new squadron, which was placed under the command of former AVG pilot (and now Lieutenant Commander) Frank L. "Whitey" Lawlor.

McClure served with VBF-9 aboard the USS Lexington, the flagship of Task Force 58.2, from February 3 to March 6, 1945, during which time he flew combat strikes against airfields near Tokyo to minimize opposition to the Iwo Jima landings and then flew close air support for the assaulting Marines. After flying additional strikes against the Japanese home islands and with the Lexington scheduled for overhaul, McClure was transferred with his squadron to the USS Yorktown.

It was while serving aboard the Yorktown from March 6 to June 16, 1945, that Lieutenant McClure became an ace, flying strikes against airfields on Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku, and Okinawa. On April 11, 1945, while flying combat over the ocean, he claimed his first aerial victory, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero. He claimed his second kill less than a week later on April 17, shooting down a Kawasaki Ki-61 Tony over the ocean. His most successful day came later in the same month, on April 29, when he was credited with shooting down two A6M Zeroes, south of Kikai. A month later on May 28, 1945, he scored his last victory, over a Yokosuka P1Y Frances north of Misaka. During his combat tour with VBF-9, McClure flew twenty combat missions and earned five victories, although for some unknown snafu in recordkeeping, he was not properly credited.

During his military career, Commander McClure was twice decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and was awarded the Air Medal six times. He remained in the Navy after the war and was ultimately promoted to Lieutenant Commander on July 5, 1951. He retired from the Navy at this rank in July of 1957, but was advanced one grade and placed on the retired list as a full Commander based on his combat decorations. Years later, he was awarded a Bronze Star and the Presidential Unit Citation when the service of the American Volunteer Group was officially recognized.

His achievement went unnoticed for over 40 years until Frank Olynyk completed his study "USN Credits for the Destruction of Enemy Aircraft in Air-to-Air Combat, WW2" which was published in the Naval Aviation News in 1986. By this time, McClure was 70 years old, retired from his post-military career and living in Pierson, Florida. As details of his identity and whereabouts were unknown at the time, the biography that was subsequently published for the American Fighter Aces Association and in Frank Olynyk's book Stars & Bars makes no reference to his service in the AVG. Likewise, while members of the Flying Tigers community knew he had become a navy pilot, nobody, probably not even Mr. McClure, knew that he had been officially credited as an ace.

Commander Edgar B. McClure, USN (ret.) currently lives in Brunswick, Georgia, and recently celebrated his 90th birthday. His unique distinction as a member of both the American Volunteer Group and the American Fighter Aces merits greater recognition. It is the purpose of this article to finally give this hero the attention he deserves.

[Editor's Note: This is an admittedly incomplete account of Edgar McClure's story, because it is an ongoing investigation. Attempts have been made to contact him and fill in the unknown details and requests for official government records of his service have also been submitted. If you have any additional details you can provide, please pass them along and this historical work-in-progress will be updated accordingly.]