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From Aircraft Mechanic to Decorated WWII Ace

One of the greatest living WWII fighter pilots recounts heeding the call of duty after Pearl Harbor attacks

clarence bud anderson world war two polit

Cassisy Araiza

Clarence "Bud" Anderson photographed at his California home; inset: Anderson sitting on the wing of his P-51D Mustang "Old Crow.”

En español

He is arguably the greatest living American fighter pilot from WWII, certainly the highest scoring living ace in the USA. On Dec. 7, 1941, Bud Anderson, now 99, was working at the Sacramento Air Depot as a junior aircraft mechanic. “I was just a young kid,” he says. “I had been there for about six months. I had been on the graveyard shift most of the time, working 24/7. The foreman came around some time in the afternoon and said, “You, you, you, and Bud Anderson, go home right now and come back at midnight. The Japanese just attacked us at Pearl Harbor.”

“I was going to sign up for the Army Air Corps aviation cadet program and I had gone and gotten my two years of college, but I was not 20 years old yet. The next month, January, I turned 20. I wanted to fly, but this was a bigger deal. I knew I was going to go to war.”

Anderson ended up as one of the famed “Yoxford Boys,” based in England, doing two tours of duty with the 363rd Fighter Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group. He flew 116 missions and became a major at the age of 22. “I shot down 16 and one-quarter enemy airplanes in aerial combat,” he says.

He was “super lucky” to survive so long, flying the P-51, “the ideal airplane for the European theater of operations to defeat the Luftwaffe. What we needed to do was to go anywhere that the B-17s wanted to go to bomb. We had enough endurance to do that. No other fighters could do that. The P-51 was very fast at high and low altitudes. It was the perfect airplane.”

Being a great pilot meant you had to be “motivated, number one. You had to want to do it. You had to have good eyes because we didn’t have radar or anything to help us find the enemy. Your eyes were your best weapon. You had to know what to do in situations in a flash. It has to be an instinct.”

Among his fellow aces was one who became famous later. “Chuck Yeager was in our squadron and he and I became very good friends.” Yeager, who died on Dec. 7 — of all days — in 2020, would go on to become the first pilot to break the sound barrier in 1947.

Anderson remembers others from his squadron, too: “I had two close friends in my flight. Jim Browning and Eddie Simpson were two excellent guys. They were both killed in action. I liked them so much I named my son after them, James Edward Anderson.” The loss of so many others still haunts him. He would see B-17s shot down and would “count the parachutes as they fell from the sky.”

At the end of the war, Anderson was in Texas, where he celebrated with his wife. He went on to a career as a test pilot, flying more than 100 different aircraft in his career, and served his country for over 30 years, including in Vietnam.

The lesson of Pearl Harbor, Anderson says, is that “America was tremendously unprepared for WWII. We should never let our guard down. We should always have a strong military and be prepared and expect anything.”

The U.S. was a far different place after that attack, Anderson says: totally united. “Young people rushed to the recruiting stations.

Alex Kershaw is a best-selling author of several books about World War II, including The Liberator, which became a Netflix miniseries in 2020.