During the Second World War, only four American pilots would claim to have shot down enemy aircraft from each of the three original Axis powers; Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only three of those four are officially credited as triple-Axis aces. US Army Air Forces (USAAF) Lieutenant Louis Edward Curdes is one of them, but his story is hands-down the most unique and probably the one which has been most mangled and mythologized.
Curdes, born November 2, 1919, grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. After High School he attended Purdue University, but heard his country’s call after Pearl Harbor. Near the end of his third year of college, he joined the Army Reserve on March 12, 1942, and entered flight school. He completed his pilot training by December, 1942, and accepted a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army.
Assigned to the 95th Fighter Squadron, 82nd Fighter Group, Curdes arrived at the air base in North Africa in April 1943. Curdes named his P-38G Lightning “The Good Angel”. Within the first month he had shot down five Messerschmitt Bf-109s. A month later, in June, he shot down an Italian Macchi C.202 Folgore (Thunderbolt) fighter. In August, Curdes was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions up to that time. He’d only been in-theatre for just over three months, but he was a hot pilot!
On August 27, 1943, his 44th and final mission with the 82nd Fighter Group, his squadron was escorting B-25 Mitchell bombers to a raid in Italy when they were attacked by a group of about 50 Messerschmitts. Curdess shot down two 109s, but he was shot down in turn. Captured, he was detained in an Italian POW camp where he spent a week before escaping along with a number of others. Recaptured, he was sent to a high-security POW camp near Rome. Curdess had been there four days when the Italian government surrendered to the Allies. The POWs were to be turned over to the Germans, but the Italian guards apparently favored the Allies over the Nazis and supplied Curdes and others with rifles and blankets and pointed them south toward the advancing Allied armies. It took 8 months of hard living and hiding from the Germans, but he finally made it to Allied lines on May 27, 1944.
Regulations prohibited former POWs from going back into combat in the same theatre of war. Curdes went home to Indiana briefly, but petitioned the Army for a transfer which was approved. In the Philippines, he was assigned to fly the Mustang P-51D for the 3rd Air Commando Group which combined fighter squadrons with a transport squadron flying C-47 Skytrains. He named his new P-51 “Bad Angel”.
On February 7, 1945, Curdes shot down a Mitsubishi Ki-46 reconnaissance plane. This was his ninth ‘kill’ but first Japanese combatant. He was now officially a triple-Axis ace.
His next mission would make him the most unique of the triple-Axis aces. On February 10, 1945, Curdes led a formation of four Mustangs from their base in the Philippines, north to scout for a reported Japanese airfield on the southern tip of the island of Formosa (now Taiwan). They didn’t find any sign of an airfield, so headed back to the Philippines. The northernmost island of the Philippines is Batan (not to be confused with Bataan) where a Japanese airfield was located. The Mustangs encountered enemy fighters there, shot two down, and destroyed three more as they were taking off, all while being fired on by anti-aircraft fire. Lieutenant La Croix was shot down, but managed to get out of his plane ok and landed in the ocean: he was safe in his rubber life raft for the time being. An air-sea rescue was called, but by this time it was late in the day, and wouldn’t be able to arrive until morning daybreak.
Curdes spotted a transport plane on final approach for the Japanese airfield. His first thought was that it was a Japanese plane, the Showa/Nakajima L2D, a Japanese version of the American DC-3/C-47, which had been built under license in Japan since at least 1938. A closer look revealed USAAF markings. Now Curdes thought it had been captured by the enemy, who had not replaced the American star with the Japanese Imperial Army “meatball”. Flying up alongside the C-47, he immediately took note of two things. He recognized the aircraft, as the markings indicated it belonged to the 317th Troop Carrier Group, and he verified the pilots were American, not Japanese as he’d originally suspected.
He had to stop them from landing at the Japanese airfield on Batan, where they would most definitely be mistreated. The Imperial Japanese Army was well-known for their sadistic treatment of prisoners. Curdes tried but couldn’t raise them on the radio. Placing his Mustang directly in front of the C-47, he tried to wave them off, but the Skytrain pilot was determined to land. They had flown through a bad storm, blown off course, their radio and navigation equipment had failed, and they were out of fuel. Besides, they thought they were looking at an American-held airfield, not Japanese.
Curdes fired tracer rounds directly in front of the distraught C-47, but the crew would not turn away from their landing approach. Curdes had only one option left. He defly shot up one engine. When they stubbornly kept on for Batan, he shot up the other. The C-47 pilot set the bird down on the water in one piece, and the crew and passengers (either 12 or 13 total) got out and into life rafts before the plane slipped under the surface. La Croix was able to join up with them and explained why they had been prevented from landing.
Curdes and the remaining P-51s headed back to base. Night was falling and they were low on fuel. The next morning Curdes and one wingman took off at daybreak and escorted a PBY Catalina air-sea rescue to pickup La Croix and the now-grateful Skytrain occupants. After returning to base, Curdes looked over the list of those who were just rescued. To his surprise, one of the two nurses who had been passengers was a woman he’d been on at least one recent date with.
While not credited with a ‘kill’, Curdes was acknowleged for shooting down an American plane and allowed to place an American flag on his plane next to the triple-Axis symbols of his earlier ‘kills’ on his plane. It also appears he was awarded an oak-leaf cluster for his DFC medal (i.e., a second DFC).
There’s alot of confusion and mythology built up around this story. Primarily, most sources report that Curdes married the nurse that he shot down. This appears not to be true. The other point of contention concerns the second DFC. Many sources say it was awarded to him for shooting down the C-47, while others say that is false. Having read a number of sources my take is that it’s true, based on the highly detailed and researched account by Don Hollway, which I think you would enjoy reading.
Question of the Night: What’s the strangest thing that you ever did, or strangest thing that ever happened to you?