Lieutenant Colonel Neel E. Kearby of the 348th Fighter Group flew his last mission on March 5, 1944, to Wewak and a Japanese airfield at Dagua. From 22,000 feet, his group spotted a number of Japanese aircraft at about 1,000 feet, apparently preparing to land. The P-47s dove at high speed and tore into Japanese "Nell" and "Lily" bombers, downing several on the first pass.
Within minutes, however, Ki-43 "Oscar" and Ki-61 "Tonys" came to the bombers' aid. All of the aircraft were in a swirling mass at low altitude when Kearby suddenly found an Oscar on his tail. He tried desperately to bank and climb as Capt. Bill Dunham made a head-on pass at the pursuing Oscar in an attempt to shake it off Kearby's tail. Dunham caught a brief glimpse of Kearby opening his canopy. He was apparently hit and may have been attempting to bail out or evacuate cockpit smoke.
In 1947, a Royal Australian Air Force search party found Kearby's wrecked P-47, Fiery Ginger IV, near Pibu, New Guinea, 140 miles away. Islanders found Kearby hanging from his parachute in a tree, already dead, and buried him. Kearby's remains were disinterred and returned to Dallas, Texas, where he was reburied at Hillcrest Memorial Park on July 23, 1949.
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