I flew on 101 combat missions in the Southwest Pacific in the "Flying Knights" squadron, from October 1943 to December 1944. I have many memories of the terrifying yet exhilarating experiences of aerial dogfighting with the Japanese Zero; of sizzling fireballs filling the sky; of a squadron mate going down in flames; of being strapped for long hours in a tiny cockpit at heights that never a lark or eagle ever flew; of escorting a parade of bombers stretched across the horizon; of flak clouds bursting all around and of a high-pitched voice screaming over the radio: "He's on my tail! Get 'em off! Get 'em off!"

I remember the day I shot down my first Zero. I was on his tail, closing fast and firing. When it burst into flames, I passed by just off his left wing. I glanced across and saw the pilot in the cockpit, flames all around. We looked at each other for an emotional instant before the Zero exploded in pieces.

I was a 19-year-old country boy when I joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. A year later, I was flying combat where our pilot losses were nearly 30 percent. It required that you grow up in a hurry. But neither I nor any of my squadron mates ever doubted the reason we were there.

-- Richard C. Kirkland, Vienna

The gear of combat pilot Richard C. Kirkland: Army Air Corps service cap, goggles with Type A9 flying helmet, Zippo lighter, wings and aviator glasses.