Fresh out of flight school, 23-year-old Robert Paul Fash was flying over the Pacific inside an aluminum cocoon outfitted with 50-caliber machineguns.
It was 1943. A skilled navigator in superb physical condition, he was piloting a Hellcat F6F, whose velocity and agility made it an aviators’ favorite.
Then, he spotted something. A Japanese “Betty” bomber loomed ahead.
Robert Fash and his beloved Hellcat were ready. The Betty’s tail-gunner was not.
“The guy must have been reading the ‘Tokyo Times,’ ’’ Mr. Fash would later recall. “I pulled up behind ’em. I shot it up.”
It was the first of six and a half planes he’s credited with downing in World War II dogfights.
Those notches made him part of an elite group of ace fighter pilots credited with downing five or more enemy aircraft, according to Hill Goodspeed, a historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.
Mr. Fash died Saturday at 94 in Hawthorn Woods, where he’d lived with his son for the past decade. With his death, the number of living WWII flying aces fell to 73, according to the American Fighter Aces Association at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
At one point, Mr. Fash flew under the ace of aces: Commander David McCampbell, credited with downing 34 planes.
On Oct. 25, 1944, while serving in McCambell’s VF-15 squadron, Mr. Fash displayed “extraordinary heroism” in the Battle for Leyte Gulf, where Allied forces fought to take back the Philippines from the Japanese. Despite anti-aircraft fire and airborne opponents, Mr. Fash “carried out an attack against major units of the Japanese Fleet, scoring a direct bomb hit to assist in sinking an enemy carrier,” according to www.militarytimes.com. For his valor, he received the Navy’s second-highest award, the Navy Cross.
On May 20, he and other surviving flying aces were awarded Congress’ highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Mr. Fash was too ill to make the journey, but his son, Robert Fash Jr., accepted for him.
Mr. Fash’s proudest moment didn’t involve glory. When downed American airmen were being fired on in 1944 in the waters off Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, the USS Tang submarine headed to the rescue. Mr. Fash strafed Japanese forces to help the group of floating men survive until the Tang arrived.
“He was just really proud that he was able to protect those guys in the water and give the submarine time to get there and get them out safe,” said his son-in-law, Robert P. Gorman. “He was running strafing missions, attacking the shore batteries.”
Robert Fash was born near Peoria and went to high school in East St. Louis. He did flight training in Penscalola and was assigned to the USS Bataan as part of fighter squadron VF-50. Later, he flew with McCampbell’s VF-15 squadron, attached to the USS Essex.
He remained in the Navy Reserves until 1962, retiring as a lieutenant. He bought several planes and flew them out of Lambert-St. Louis Airport with his company, Executive Air Transport, according to his son, and later flew for Site Oil Company and the Central Conference of Teamsters.
He and his late wife, Margaret Sisson Fash, raised their children in East St. Louis and St. Louis.
Mr. Fash enjoyed a cold martini on the rocks, and slipping treats to Duffy, the family’s Labrador retriever. He admired the flying of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed a disabled plane on the Hudson River in 2009.
He is also survived by his daughter, Mary Ann Brown, and another son, Herbert, who was named for Mr. Fash’s brother, Lt. Herbert Fash, killed in action on the USS Hancock in 1945. He has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Visitation is at 9 a.m. Thursday with a 10 a.m. prayer service to follow, both at Ahlgrim Family Funeral Home in Lake Zurich.