U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Frederick “Fritz” Payne, 104, of Rancho Mirage, Calif. — the country’s oldest living American Fighter Ace — died Aug. 6. He attended Culver Military Academy before leaving to enter the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1930.
The title of American Fighter Ace is given to pilots who have shot down at least five enemy aircraft in aerial combat during World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Payne was credited with 5½ “kills” while flying in the Guadalcanal campaign in World War II. Of the 60,000 fighter pilots who flew missions during the four wars, only 1,447 earned the Ace designation.
The son of a Navy officer, Payne was born July 31, 1911, at Elmira, N.Y. His wife, Dorothy, died in 2011. Survivors include sons Robert Payne and Dewitt Payne ’61; daughter Elizabeth Ann Payne; and three grandchildren.
He resigned from the Naval Academy after two years and completed his college education at the University of Arizona in January 1935. Upon graduation, he resigned his Army R.O.T.C. commission and entered the Marine Corps aviation cadet program that July.
Ordered to flight training school at Pensacola, Fla., Payne was commissioned a second lieutenant in July 1936 and designated a Naval Aviator in September. Based out of Quantico, Va., he embarked for Midway on Dec. 8, 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Now a major, Payne entered combat at Guadalcanal in September 1942. His first victory was a half-share on a Japanese twin-engine bomber on Sept. 14 followed by a solo victory two weeks later. Payne added four more victories between Oct. 18 and 23: two bombers and a pair of Zekes. He left Guadalcanal on Oct. 27 and subsequently served as commander of his unit, VMF-212, from November 1942 to February 1943 and later commanded Marine Air Group 23.
Following World War II, Col. Payne remained in aviation assignments, including the 1st Marine Air Wing in Korea. He also had 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 on Aug. 1, 1958.
Payne, celebrated his 104th birthday on July 31, received the Congressional Gold Medal – Congress’ highest civilian award – during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Palm Springs Air Museum in May. He was unable to attend the ceremony that honored the remaining 77 surviving aces in Washington, D.C., on May 20.
His other military decorations include the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit with Combat V, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal with four Gold Stars.