HAZLETON —U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta is co-sponsoring the American Fighter Aces Congressional Gold Medal Act to establish a Congressional Gold Medal to honor U.S. pilots who destroyed at least five enemy aircraft during aerial combat.
The estimated 1,500 pilots — including one from Wilkes-Barre Township, one from Hazleton and two others from the region — who qualified as aces nationally would be honored collectively with one medal to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.
“These brave men were vital in our efforts to preserve and promote peace and freedom, as they risked their lives with every mission they undertook,” Barletta, R-Hazleton, said. The late Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Kruzel scored six aerial victories over Europe and the South Pacific. He joined the regular Air Force after World War II and rose to the rank of major general.
According to his obituary from 2002, Kruzel was born in 1918 in the Georgetown section of Wilkes-Barre Township. He graduated from the University of Scranton in 1938 and then graduated from the Air Command and Staff School, the Air War College and the National War College.
He became an aviation cadet in 1940. His first assignment was flying P-40s in the 17th Pursuit Squadron out of the Philippines after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was credited with destroying three Japanese fighters in the first year of the war.
He returned to the United States and became a P-47 squadron commander in Richmond, Va., and was named executive officer of the 361st Fighter Group, which went to England in 1943. In Europe, he was credited with destroying three German fighters. He became flight group commander of the 361st in 1944. He also held commands of the F-100 Fighter Wing and Air Division and staff posts in operations at Pacific Air Forces Headquarters and at U.S. Air Force Headquarters in the Pentagon.
He retired in 1970 as a major general. He later moved to Florida.
Other Fighter Aces from the 11th Congressional District are:
• Thomas J. Lynch, Hazleton, scored 20 aerial victories in the South Pacific with the 35th fighter group before being shot down and killed in action on March 8, 1944, on a mission over New Guinea with America’s top Ace, Dick Bong (40 victories). His Lockheed P-38 Lightning was hit by low-level by Japanese ground fire which led him to bail out at low altitude. This caused his parachute to fail to open properly and he was killed as he fell into the jungle.
• William R. Beyer, Danville, scored nine aerial victories with the 361st fighter group flying the P-51 Mustang over Europe. He also was one of America’s few “Ace in a Day” pilots, downing five German Fw190s in one day over Eisenbach in 1944.
• Charles Hauver, Bloomsburg, joined the Army Reserves after Pearl Harbor and was shipped to Europe after D-Day. He recorded five aerial victories.
“For some people, thinking about fighter pilots conjures up images from the movie ‘Top Gun,’ ” Barletta said. “Well, for these brave men, it was no Hollywood movie. They lived it.”