Roughly one person for every year of Fritz Payne's life gathered Wednesday to celebrate the oldest living ace fighter pilot's recent 99th birthday.
“I think it's wonderful,” Payne said after the hourlong birthday party at the Palm Springs Air Museum. “I'm overwhelmed.”
Payne, whose birthday was July 31, was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and also served in the Korean War. Flying from the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific, Payne shot down five Japanese planes and assisted with another takedown, earning him the designation of ace pilot.
Staff and volunteers at the air museum recounted Payne's biography, presented a slideshow of planes he flew and showed an video interview he gave to the museum Wednesday for the crowd of about 100.
“We thought that this could be a little cake at his place, but wait a minute — we want to share this with the people,” said Bob Andrade, historian at the air museum and a longtime friend.
After the event, attendees ate cake in Payne's honor and stopped by to shake his hand, reminisce and pose for pictures.
“You know, I'm going to get a sunburn from flash bulbs,” Payne joked, as a television cameraman also switched on his light.
Fred Noble, chairman of the air museum's board of directors, told Payne that it was an honor to meet him — especially after his recent visit to Guadalcanal with other board members.
“Here's a guy who's an ace. He did it all,” Noble said. “What you'll find with men like him, they're profoundly modest. Their heroism is phenomenal, and you've got to pay your respects.”
Payne, who has lived in Rancho Mirage since 1974, said he counts becoming an ace as one of his biggest accomplishments. But he added that he doesn't like to boast about the title since it came at the expense of others' lives.
Although Payne didn't formally volunteer at the Palm Springs Air Museum, he often came to events in the museum's earlier years to talk about his experiences at Guadalcanal, said Dick Clark, president of the air museum.
“It's rare that we get somebody of this stature, and I'm not talking about his rank. I'm talking about his accomplishments,” Clark said. “There's not many of these guys left.”
WII F4F PILOT GUADALCANAL GEN FRITZ PAYNE (ACE)
Ace fought enemy, malaria over Pacific (Payne '34)
15Apr10 - U.S. Marine Corps veteran Frederick "Fritz" Payne, a fighter pilot who shot down five enemy planes in combat action over the Pacific during World War II, was awarded the Navy Cross - the U.S. Navy's highest honor.
Along with the five solo "kills," Payne was also credited with a half-kill in shooting down a Japanese twin-engine bomber.
"That's because somebody else was firing at it, too," Payne said.
Payne's mid-air marksmanship - from behind the guns of a Wildcat fighter plane - earned Payne the designation of "ace pilot," a distinction awarded to top fighter pilots who've shot down at least five enemy aircraft.
Payne knocked out two Japanese bombers and a pair of Japanese Zero fighters during a six-day period in October 1942.
Payne, who called flying his "life's desire," spent two years in the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., before resigning from the academy in 1932.
He completed his college education at the University of Arizona in 1935 and attempted to begin his military career.
"At that time, the Navy cadet program was full," he said. "The Marine Corps was full, too. My father said, 'You're a college graduate, go to the recruiting office and tell them you'd like to join the Marine Corps.'"
Payne's father, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, served in the Spanish-American War and served as a lieutenant commander during World War I.
The Marine Corps agreed to Payne's request.
Payne was commissioned a second lieutenant of the Marines and, according to his flight log records, made his first solo flight at U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 1, 1935.
Payne's solo was made on what soon would become hallowed ground of aviation history.
Famous aviators of the era, including Jackie Cochran and Amelia Earhart, took off from Floyd Bennett Field; Howard Hughes used the airfield as his start and finish for his July 1938 record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked, Payne, by now a member of Marine Fighter Squadron 221, embarked for Midway Island aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga on Dec. 8, 1941.
Payne, who was promoted to major by the summer of 1942, engaged in combat operations in battle zones throughout the Pacific including Guadalcanal, Aleutian Islands, Kwajalein, Hollandia and Guam.
Although his plane took a beating during combat missions - returning to base with numerous bullet holes - Payne said he only had one really close brush with death.
"It was when I got malaria," he said.
Because of the high altitudes the planes flew, the pilots wore oxygen masks.
"When you get malaria, you naturally get sick," he said. "When I got sick I vomited in my oxygen mask, and it cut off my oxygen."
"The next thing I knew, I was going around in circles," he said.
The plane was out of control.
Payne passed out.
"When I came to, I was at about 8,000 feet and the plane was going down and I pulled out," Payne said.
The fighter pilot made it safely back on the ground.
Following World War II, Payne served with the First Marine Air Wing in Korea from February to October of 1952 and was decorated for outstanding service.
A variety of duties followed Korea, including helicopter unit command and responsibility for planning and control of land and air elements in atomic weapons tests during 1957.
He retired from active duty with the rank of brigadier general in 1958.
FREDERICK 'FRITZ' PAYNE
Born: July 31, 1911
Hometown: Born in Elmira, N.Y.; raised in Indianapolis.
Residence: Palm Desert
Military branch: U.S. Marine Corps
Years served: 1935-1958
Rank: Major; retired as brigadier general.
Family: Wife Dorothy; three children, Robert Payne of Dana Point, Ann Wilson Payne of New York City and DeWitt Payne of Kingsport, Tenn.; three grandkids.
About this series
Staff writer Denise Goolsby will profile desert veterans from World War II through the end of 2010 - the 65th anniversary of the end of the war. Contact her at (760) 778-4587 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Arthur Rosenthal of Palm Desert.
LEARN MORE: Read about other Coachella Valley residents who served in World War II at www.mydesert.com/WWII
LOAD-DATE: April 14, 2010
BYLINE: By, Denise Goolsby
LENGTH: 695 words
The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, California)
April 14, 2010 Wednesday Copyright 2010 The Desert Sun
All Rights Reserved