By 1942, the Second World War had become a truly worldwide conflict, stretching from Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and across the entire Pacific Ocean. Due to the vast distance between theaters and logistical difficulties, few American soldiers fought in Europe and the Pacific. As opposed to foot soldiers, pilots could be transferred between theaters with relative ease. Even so, very few American pilots fought in both theaters of war, and only three destroyed an enemy plane belonging to each Axis nation: Germany, Italy, and Japan. Louis E. Curdes was one of these men, but what sets him apart from the other two is the extraordinary feat he accomplished just before the war’s end.
Louis E. Curdes: Childhood and Background
Louis Edward Curdes was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on November 2, 1919. His mother was a schoolteacher who became a homemaker after meeting his father, who worked in development and home-building real estate. At only ten years old, he witnessed the sudden arrival of the Great Depression and its devastating effects on the United States.
During this time, he attended North Side High School, where he played basketball and track before being cut from the teams after his coach caught him smoking. Throughout high school, Curdes helped his father at work by cutting weeds and caring for any lots and homes his father cared for. Due to his father’s love for aviation, Curdes was exposed to airplanes and air races as a child, which sparked his interest in flying.
He graduated in 1938 and decided to pursue a college education. Curdes enrolled at Purdue University and worked construction jobs during the summers. By 1941, he was in his third year of college and only sporadically kept up with the ongoing wars in Asia and Europe. However, he strongly disliked the European dictators Hitler and Mussolini.
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On Saturday, December 6, 1941, Curdes dropped out of school to follow his dream of being a military pilot. He passed the required tests and exams to become a flying cadet. His father dropped him off at the train station where he would catch a train to flight training in California. He had no idea of what was to happen the following day.
Flight Training and Deployment to Europe
On Dec 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, crippling the American Pacific Fleet. In response, the United States declared war on Japan. In the following days, Germany and Italy also declared war on the United States. The US was now firmly in the Allied camp and would fight a two-front war against the Axis powers.
US leadership focused on Europe first to assist the British and the Soviets, the latter of whom had taken enormous casualties on the Eastern Front. Meanwhile, the Allies would remain on the defensive in the Pacific until the defeat of Germany and Italy was assured.
Curdes and other Fort Wayne cadets had just arrived in Santa Ana, California, for their first assignment. For 12 months, he would train on several different planes, including the Stearman PT-13 and the North American Aviation AT-6. Curdes was one of a few cadets introduced to the Curtiss P-36 Hawk, which would be his first experience with a high-performance monoplane.
Curdes earned his commission as a Lieutenant and his flight wings in December of 1942. He was initially assigned to the 329th Fighter Group in Southern California. In March of 1943, he was put on a plane and transferred to the 82nd Fighter Group, 95th Fighter Squadron based in North Africa.
The P-38 and Becoming an Ace
Upon arriving in North Africa, Curdes was initially given control of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The P-38 was the premier American long-range fighter with a max speed of 413mph. This speed significantly outpaced similar Axis counterparts, such as the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 and the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Reisen.
At only 22 years old and in the cockpit of his P-38, Curdes took off for a routine mission on April 29, 1943. In the skies over Tunisia, Curdes encountered several German Luftwaffe Bf-109s. He shot down three in the ensuing combat and damaged a fourth. Less than a month later, on May 19, Curdes shot down two more 109s, which, together with his earlier victories, made him an American ace.
On June 24, Curdes flew an escort mission for American bombers over Sardinia when he encountered the Italian Air Force or Regia Aeronautica. He managed to down an Italian Macchi C.202 Folgore, giving him victories over Germany and Italy.
On August 27, 1943, during another escort mission, Curdes heard over the radio that one of his comrades was in danger. He maneuvered his plane to assist the wingman under attack by several German Bf-109s. Curdes managed to shoot down two aircraft in a dogfight that lasted less than an hour. However, his craft was damaged and lacked the fuel to safely make it back to North Africa. This forced him to land on a beach south of Salerno. Without making it back to base, the military listed him as Missing in Action.
Prisoner of War in Italy
Not long after exiting his craft, Curdes was apprehended by Italian soldiers. The Italians treated him respectfully and even refused German attempts to transfer him to their control. While being held with four other Americans near a dock in Salerno, the men attempted to escape by stealing a Red Cross boat. However, the Italians recaptured the men, and Curdes was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp near Rome.
In September of 1943, Italy, having suffered enough embarrassing defeats and having lost Sicily, capitulated to the Allied powers. In retaliation, Hitler moved to annex his former ally. During the confusion, most of the Italian guards of the camp abandoned their posts. A sympathetic Italian guard even assisted the prisoners in escaping their cells, letting them disappear before the Germans arrived.
Back home in Fort Wayne, Curdes’ parents concluded that their son had crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. His comrades and superiors even sent them letters of condolence, reaffirming their belief. Meanwhile, Curdes and the other escapees spent the next eight months traversing the mountain peaks in Central Italy. Communist Resistance fighters and local civilians helped the group as much as possible, giving them supplies and some handguns.
The escapees traveled at night and, during the day, would sleep in animal pens, caves, and wherever the resistance told them to. On May 27, 1944, Curdes heard the sounds of the ongoing Battle for Monte Cassino and managed to slip through Allied lines. After being interrogated by the British, Curdes’ identity was confirmed. He then spent a few weeks briefing Allied aircrews on survival and escape procedures.
Repatriation and Return to War
Curdes’ parents learned in June that their son was alive and was on his way home. Upon his arrival, he was treated as a hero and given a makeshift parade in his hometown. He spent his leave relaxing, visiting family, and fishing with his father. The good times would not last as Curdes eventually volunteered to return to combat not long after. Due to the Geneva Conventions and his status as a former prisoner and escapee, he was prevented from flying over European territory again.
Instead, the military sent him to the Pacific Theater of Operations. While the Battle for the Philippines raged, Curdes arrived at a nearby American airbase to join the 3rd Air Commando Group. Unlike in Europe, his new assignment put him behind the controls of a North American Aviation P-51 Mustang that was promptly named “Bad Angel.”
The P-51 was the powerhouse of the American Air Forces throughout the war and remains one of the most iconic American aircraft. Capable of reaching speeds up to 437 miles per hour and holding a range of 1,000 miles, the P-51 proved a formidable fighter in the Pacific. Although quite different from the P-38, Curdes had no issues controlling his new aircraft.
The 3rd Air Commando Group began launching missions around the Philippines, the Coast of China, and near the island of Taiwan. On February 7, 1945, south of Taiwan, Curdes shot down a Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-46 Reconnaissance plane. With a confirmed kill against the Japanese military, Curdes became one of only three men to destroy a plane from Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Shooting Down a Friendly Plane
On February 10, Curdes and several other pilots launched a sortie that took them over the southern coast of Taiwan. On the return trip, the pilots flew over Batan Island near Luzon before they noticed a nearby Japanese airstrip. The pilots strafed the airfield, but during the attack, one of Curdes’ wingmen, La Croix, was shot down and crashed into the ocean. Curdes circled over the downed pilot to protect him from any Japanese retaliation.
However, while doing so, he noticed a transport plane approaching the airfield. Curdes flew close to investigate, only to realize that it was an American C-47 intending to land at the Japanese base.
Curdes tried radioing the plane to no avail. He then moved his plane in front of the craft to deter it from continuing its course. With no apparent response despite his attempts, Curdes realized that the crew had no idea the mistake they were making. He srmised it would be better to shoot them down than let them fall into Japanese hands.
Curdes maneuvered behind the plane and shot out one of its engines. He then waited to see if the plane would change course, but he shot out the other engine when it persisted on its landing approach. The C-47 ditched into the ocean, the crew managing to board life rafts. Curdes flew low over the survivors and dropped a note warning them to stay away from the enemy shoreline.
The Aftermath and Later Life
The following morning, Curdes led a rescue mission to the area and found La Croix and the C-47 crew. La Croix swam over and explained to the crew what exactly happened the day prior. To Curdes’ surprise, the C-47 crew included two nurses, with one of whom he recently had a date. The crew had become lost in a storm and, short on fuel, tried to land on the airfield, unaware that it was Japanese-controlled. Curdes was hailed as a hero for saving the crew from a nightmare fate.
He was allowed to paint an American flag on the nose of his plane as a confirmed kill. This, along with seven swastikas, one Italian fasces, and a Japanese rising sun, made Curdes a double-ace and the only known pilot to shoot down a plane from four separate countries.
After the war, Curdes married Svetlana Valeria, the nurse he saved from being captured. He helped create a unit of the Air National Guard in his hometown before returning to active duty with the newly independent US Air Force. Curdes later participated in the Berlin Airlift during the beginning stages of the Cold War. He retired from the Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel in October of 1963 after 22 years of service.
Following this, Curdes started a construction company, finally coming full circle to the jobs he held while in college. He passed away in 1995 and was buried in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He remains one of the most remarkable American aces of World War II for his feats against the Axis powers and his heroic acts in the Pacific.