World War II Flying Ace, Robert Duncan

In late February of 1943 American troops were beginning to enter World War II. Although D-Day, the mass invasion of the French coast would not take place until more than a year later, American sailors and pilots were beginning to arrive in the Pacific. After completing his flight training, and a shakedown cruise at Barber’s Point, Ensign Robert Duncan, shipped out as a fighter pilot with Fighting Squadron Five stationed aboard the USS Yorktown.

“We were fortunate,” said Duncan, “because we had three people, our commanding officer, our operations officer and our lieutenant gunnery officer who had all tested and flown a Japanese Zero that crashed in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.”

At the time Duncan and his squadron were flying F4F Wildcats, but they were soon replaced by the larger, more powerful and better armed F6F Hellcat, which they knew would be a match for any Zeros they encountered.

“Our commander had flown flew that crashed Zero all the way to Miami to fly it in dogfights against all the fighters we had at the time in operation to give us an idea of how it stacked up against us,” said Duncan.

On Aug. 31, 1943, Duncan saw his first combat at Marcus Island, a small, triangle-shaped atoll less than 1,000 miles from Tokyo.

“We caught them asleep on the ground,” said Duncan. “They didn’t get any planes in the air but those guys on the ground were good gunners. They put a hole right in my left wing a foot or so up from the aircraft.”

That was the first time that anyone had shot at Duncan, much less hit him, and although he often came back from later missions with damage to his plane, at the time it was a new experience for him.

“It didn’t really affect me that much, though,” said Duncan. “When you get into combat as an aviator, you’re so busy doing what your training told you to do that you don’t have time to get any irrational thoughts. I do remember stopping to think, ‘Hey, they are trying to shoot me down.'”

Duncan saw his first aerial combat at Wake Island, where the young pilot launched in a driving rain, cutting visibility down to almost nothing.

“You could hardly see the plane you were flying wing on,” said Duncan.

The planes popped out of the squall line into a cloudy sky and Duncan immediately spotted a Japanese Zero.

“I was flying wing on Boogie Hoffman at the time,” said Duncan. “He was a top-notch gunner and we’d gamble for Cokes to see who could shoot the best, but I had the better eyes.”

Duncan downed the Zero with an easy shot and pulled up just in time to see another Zero closing in on fellow pilot Hugh Kelley’s tail. Kelley was keyed in on another target and couldn’t break loose, so Duncan fired tracers past the Zeros nose in an effort to distract him from an easy kill.

“He did a wing over and came around on me,” said Duncan. “I pulled into his turn with him tight so he couldn’t fire at me but he got a few holes in my plane anyway.”

The Japanese pilot pulled around and pulled up into a loop, a favorite trick when facing slower and less maneuverable Wildcats. Little did he know that the new Hellcat fighters he was facing could outturn a Zero at high speeds.

“I thought this guy must be right out of flight training to pull a stunt like that, and he’s going to get himself shot down,” said Duncan. “I pulled up and just as he reached the apogee of his loop I let him have it and down he went.”

It wasn’t until years later, in 1998, that Duncan would learn the true story of his “rookie pilot.” According to an article in a World War II magazine, Duncan’s “rookie pilot” was probably Warrant Officer Toshiyuki Sueda, a Japanese ace with nine American planes.

“I finally realized what this guy was trying to do,” said Duncan. “All the planes that he had shot down before were Wildcats, and he was used to having those Wildcats pilots pull up and start to stall and he could finish out his loop and shoot them down.”

With his two kills Duncan was the first pilot flying from the Yorktown to down an enemy plane, a claim he can back up with a bottle of Old Crow, a gift from the squadron’s commanding officer, that Duncan still has never opened.

It wouldn’t be until November during a large battle at Truk Island, called the “Japanese Pearl Harbor,” that Duncan would earn for himself the right to another claim, that of fighter ace. The pilots were apprehensive about attacking Truk, really a series of four small atolls, and on Duncan’s very first run he took a hit that had oil pouring all over the windshield.

After landing back on the carrier and strapping into a new plane, Duncan launched again this time flying high altitude cover for a fleet of bombers pounding the islands.

“We soon saw about 15-20 Zeros up above us and they came down to engage us,” said Duncan. “Their front man came head on at me which was unusual because Japs usually didn’t like to make head on shots.

Duncan made the most of the error and shot both the lead pilot and his wingman out of the air.

“The third man that I got took off to run and I went out after him I got so close on his tail that when I fired on him he just blew up right in my face,” said Duncan. “I thought I was going right through that explosion, and I jerked back on the stick and blacked out in the process.”

When the darkness cleared Duncan was officially a fighter ace, free of the debris from his fifth kill with nary a scratch on his plane.

Duncan shot down two more Zeros that day and received the Navy’s highest honor, the Navy Cross, for, in the words of Admiral C. W. Nimitz, “extraordinary heroism…skilled airmanship, courage and gallant devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming fighter opposition.”

Duncan continued to serve in the Navy, eventually downing two more planes for a total of seven and earning a Distinguished Flying Cross, eight Air Medals and various others. On his return home to Marion he continued to serve, not his country, but his community as manager of the Williamson County Regional Airport. Robert Duncan has spent most of his life in the air, but when he’s been on the ground chances are it’s been in Marion. He is truly, a hometown hero. —–By Eric Chaney, Marion Daily Republican

In His Own Words

When Robert W. Duncan enlisted in the U.S. Navy back in January 1942, he had no idea that his exploits as a World War II flying ace would be documented in history books for years to come. In fact, he wasn’t thinking of much other than avoiding “slogging through the mud with a rifle on my shoulders. By enlisting, I had the opportunity to select the branch and type of service. I wasn’t scared. I was a young man with a lot of vim and vigor behind me.”

The now- retired captain, now 83, will be called into service one more time as he serves as parade marshal of Marion Illinois Main Street’s Armed Forces Day Patriotic parade, beginning at 11 a.m. today May 14, 2004. On the eve of the parade, Duncan reflected on his time in the Pacific. At age 21, he joined the U.S. Navy and became one of the original members of the “Fighting Five” of the USS Yorktown CV-10. Duncan and other members of his squadron flew the brand-new F6F Grumann Hellcat fighter planes from the deck of the ship. He and other members of his squadron played a crucial role in the war as the U.S. troops marched toward Japan.

“We were taking islands as we went,” he said. His first air-to-ground combat hop occurred Aug. 31, 1943, when the ship was in the Marcus Islands. “We caught them dead asleep and began strafing. All of a sudden, I was pushed over into a 45-degree dive. I felt the plane shudder. I looked and there was a hole the size of a telephone pole in one wing. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, those guys are trying to kill me,'” Duncan said. The ship traveled next to Wake Island where Duncan saw his first air-to-air combat on Oct. 5, 1943. “The sun wasn’t up yet. I spotted a Japanese Zero (a fighter plane made by Mitsubishi) but he didn’t see me. I opened up on him. He went down.

About that same time, I saw one of our guys coming up on the tail of another Zero. There was another Zero coming down as fast as he could to get on our guy’s tail, but he didn’t know it. I couldn’t warn my squadron mate because my radio was out.” Duncan then opened up with a short volley of 50-caliber shells, hoping the pursuing Zero would notice. “He did and tried to come over to hit me. He pulled into a loop. Both of us had a lot of speed. I thought he must be on his first flight or why would he pull such a stupid maneuver? I followed him up until he reached the top of the loop and shot him down.”

It wasn’t until 1998 that Duncan learned the Zero he took out that day was piloted by a Japanese fighter ace credited with destroying nine American planes. “There was an article in World War II magazine that gave several paragraphs to my part in the Wake Island raid. When I read about it, I realized the Zero was used to the Wildcat planes (the Hellcat’s predecessor). The Hellcats were faster, could climb higher and take far more punishment than a Wildcat.”

Duncan said his training helped in missions such as the Wake Island combat. “You are running on adrenaline and you have to have a lot of guts to be a fighter pilot,” he said. “But our training was so good. It was automatic for us to do what we were trained to do. Plus, we were so busy, there was no time to worry.”

Duncan’s scariest moment in the war, he said, came after a raid on Kwajalein on Dec. 5, 1943. “Four of us got jumped by about 20 Zeros. We were in a weave position to protect each other. They hit me first — put 50 holes in my plane. Whoever was firing, they were good. They flew and fired in formation. We thought we were the only ones who could do that,” he said. Then, he said, one of his mates, Si Satterfield, got hit. Satterfield had won the Navy Cross at Midway for sinking a Japanese cruiser. “He went in the drink with burning flames coming down both sides of the plane. It was then that I said, ‘Lord, we’ve gone just about as far as we can go. If we are getting out of this mess, you’re going to have to be the one to get us out.'” Miraculously, Duncan said, “I had no more thought that then the entire (Zero) squadron turned and went back to Kwagalein.”

In total, Duncan had seven kills during air-to-air combat on his tour in the Pacific and destroyed another six enemy aircraft on the ground. He also took out one Japanese ship. That record earned him the distinction of one of the first flying aces in the war. To be designated an ace; a pilot had to shoot down at least five aircraft.

Duncan was also awarded the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight air medals, a presidential unit citation with five stars and others during a military career that ended in 1966. “I think we did an awful lot of good. I never saw so much patriotism,” he said. “We were strongly determined to fight that war, to win, to protect our families and children back to the States. We were very, very patriotic.” Duncan said World War II was different than some of the wars the United States has engaged in since. “Right now, we’ve got a good group of people. I’m amazed at their patriotism considering the criticism they are going to get from the people who disagree with the war.”

Duncan said he understands some of the criticism, particularly the torture of prisoners in Iraq. “It’s terrible, but those people are going to be called to task. They will be court-martialed. But we had a young man decapitated and I don’t hear much criticism of that. The prisoners are at least, still alive.” The cruelty of war, however, is no surprise to Duncan. He remembers one young man who was just one downed plane away from becoming an ace.

After Guadalcanal, the young pilot got to go home for a month. When he was back from leave, he joined the USS Yorktown and learned he was going to be reassigned and wouldn’t be flying anymore. “Well, he pestered the captain to fly again. He wanted to be an ace. The captain said he could go on our mission to Truk, the Japanese Pearl Harbor,” Duncan said. “We were apprehensive to go in. We knew they had three fields of planes and lots of good pilots.” Duncan made his first pass and got hit. He made it back the 100 miles to the carrier. However, the young man who so wanted to become an ace did not make it back. “He made a pass after I left and he got hit. He tried to get back to the carrier but didn’t make it. The last we heard, he was in a life raft about six miles out. I never knew what happened to him until recently,” Duncan said. “He was captured by the Japanese the next morning. He was beheaded,” Duncan said. “He never got to be an ace.”

One of the original members of Fighting Squadron five, Bob Duncan flew the F6F Grumann “Hellcat” fighter from the famed “Fighting Lady”, the U.S.S. Yorktown (CF-10). Captain Duncan is credited with seven enemy kills during his tour of aerial combat in the Pacific. Bob Duncan was the first Yorktown fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft from the deck of the “Fighting Lady”.

During the same action he became the first U.S. Navy fighter pilot to destroy and enemy aircraft with the new “Hellcat” fighter. This action occurred during the pre-dawn attack over Wake Island, 5 October, 1943 when he destroyed two Japanese Zero fighters in rapid succession. He achieved another first when he became the first Yorktown pilot to become an Ace. This combat action took place while leading a division of “Hellcats” escorting bombers and torpedo planes during the first carrier raid on Truk atoll, the Japanese pearl Harbor, 16 February, 1944.

During the ensuing melee that followed the attack form out of the sun by a large flight of Japanese “Zeke” fighters upon his division, Bob Duncan shot down four of the attacking fighters in approximately five minutes. His division accounted for a total of eight of the enemy aircraft while other accompanying navy fighter divisions were wiping up the remaining attacking force of Zeroes.

As a result not a single navy fighter bomber or torpedo plane was lost during that engagement. In addition to destroying one enemy “Zeke” fighter over Saipan, 22 February, 1944, Bob Duncan is credited with sinking a Japanese AK 5000 ton cargo ship at Kwajalein during the raid of 5 December, 1943.

His post WWII duty included a tour with a Jet Fighter Squadron flying from the U.S.S. Boxer (CV-21) during the Korean conflict. It was while flying an F6F Jet Fighter aircraft that he was rescued by Helicopter from the Korean Sea just off Wonsan after crashing into the sea.

He was Commander of the Eighth Navy Recruiting Area, headquartered in San Francisco, when he retired in 1966.


Robert Duncan was a young 21-year-old man and just a regular guy, courting his high school sweetheart, Mary Evelyn Russell, and working at the family hardware store in Marion.

The news may have come over the radio. More likely, a store patron may have alerted the Duncans as to what had transpired in the South Pacific.

“Someone probably came into the store and said something,” Steve Duncan said.

Regardless of how the news arrived, Robert W. Duncan knew exactly what he was going to do. A month later, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and became one of the more famed Allied fighter pilots with his achievements of shooting down seven Japanese aircrafts during ensuing Pacific aerial combat.

One of his hits was taking out Warrant Officer Toshiyuki Sueda, a Japanese ace who had shot down nine American planes.

Duncan is also credited with destroying another six Japanese aircraft on the ground while strafing and flew more than 100 missions during World War II and the Korean War.

His achievement of becoming the first Squadron 5 pilot to become a fighter ace with the first carrier raid on Truk, the Japanese Pearl Harbor, in 1944 have been documented and broadcasted on the History Channel.

His decorations included the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight air medals and a presidential unit citation with five stars during a military career that spanned 24 years.

Duncan was not available for an interview with The Southern Illinoisan, but Steve Duncan shared information about his father.

“He wanted to do something for his country,” Steve Duncan said about his father’s immediate enlisting after Pearl Harbor. “He said he knew the war was coming. He wanted to help out with the effort.”

The Williamson County Board of Commissioners honored Duncan during an August meeting that included the unveiling of a 30-by-40 inch painting of the Fighting Squadron 5 in action by Marion artist Tom Hartwell and a plaque etched by Joe Hayes of Graph-ics Galore of Marion.

Steve Duncan said he, his father and other family members were grateful.

“It was more than we expected,” Steve Duncan said. “We just thought it would be a small gathering of people with an unveiling down in the building lobby. Instead, they (county commissioners) included us as part of their meeting.”—-Scott Fitzgerald, Southern Illinoisan

Duncan Receives Navy Cross, 2003

MARION — Robert Wayne Duncan of Marion has received one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on an American war veteran. Duncan was given the Navy Cross on Tuesday by U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Marion. “I can’t say I’m shocked to receive this award, but I am extremely surprised,” the 82-year-old Duncan said. “I had pretty much given up on it.” Duncan, a lieutenant during World War II who was later promoted to captain, said that famed Navy Adm. C.W. Nimitz had recommended him for the Navy Cross decades ago.

An excerpt from Nimitz’s letter of recommendation reads: “By his skilled airmanship, courage and gallant devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming fighter opposition, (Duncan) contributed materially to the success of the attack (at Truk) and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.” Officials with the Pentagon, however, never followed through with Nimitz’s recommendation. Duncan was one of the original members of Fighting Squadron 5, in action against Japanese forces at Truk in the South Pacific on Feb. 16, 1944. Duncan flew the F6F Grumman “Hellcat” fighter from the deck of the famed “Fighting Lady,” better known as the USS Yorktown. Duncan is credited with seven enemy kills during aerial combat in the Pacific.

He also destroyed six enemy aircraft on the ground while strafing, and was the first Squadron 5 pilot to become an ace, leading a division of Hellcats flying high over as escort for attacking dive bombers and torpedo planes. Their mission was the first carrier raid on Truk, the Japanese Pearl Harbor. Duncan shot down four of the attacking fighters in about five minutes. His division accounted for eight enemy aircraft, while accompanying Navy fighters wiped up the remaining attacking force. As a result, none of the Navy fighters, dive bombers or torpedo planes was lost during the engagement.

Duncan’s post-World War II duty included a tour on the USS Princeton, followed by assignment to a jet fighter squadron on the USS Boxer during the Korean War. Duncan served on three naval staffs and was commander of the 8th Navy Recruiting Area at San Francisco until he retired from service. The memories from the wars are still etched in Duncan’s mind. “I live this every day of my life,” he said. “I often think of how many people we lost — how many young people and how many great people.”

Duncan, who survived a crash into the Pacific shortly after one takeoff, visits the medical center once a month on an outpatient basis to receive treatment for his leg, which was injured when his parachute strap caught on a jagged piece of ejection seat post. “I was several feet under the water before I broke free,” Duncan said. “Fortunately, the parachute provided me with some buoyancy and I managed to make it to the surface where I was rescued.”

Costello said Duncan was “very deserving” of the award. “It gives me great pleasure, pride and honor to present medals earned in combat,” Costello said. “I want to thank you for your service to our country.” Despite flying more than 100 missions in the two wars, Duncan said he never entertained thoughts that he would be killed in combat.

“I know it sounds cocky, but I always thought that if anybody could make it back home safely, I’d be the one,” Duncan said. “I had no doubts. I was confident that the good Lord would take care of me.” Decorations: Navy Cross, 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 8 Air Medals. —– The Southern Illinoisan, Wed. Feb. 19, 2003

Sam’s Notes:

Robert Duncan completed his initial air school training at Lambert Field in St. Louis, Missouri in July of 1942. He underwent further training at Corpus Christi, Texas and also at an air base near Miami, Florida.

On January 11, 1943, a training plane he was flying started losing power and he managed to find a small patch of ground in the everglades to crash his plane. He came out of it with lacerations to the scalp and injuries to one leg and was treated in a Miami hospital.

According to Marion Daily Republican articles published in the day, Robert’s parents were Mr. and Mrs. A.W. Duncan living at 811 N. Court Street.

Robert W. Duncan, age 92, lifelong resident of Marion, IL except for the time he served in the Navy, passed away peacefully with his family by his side at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 12, 2013, at his home.


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 (Extracted from the Southern Illinoisan and Marion Daily Republican newspapers)

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