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Marine Ace Was Known as Toughest

November 12, 1987|GEORGE FRANK | Times Staff Writer and

When Kenneth Walsh was a boy, he would ride his bike to the small airport near his home in New Jersey and spend hours watching the small airplanes come and go.

Fifteen years later, Walsh stood in the White House before President Franklin D. Roosevelt to receive the Medal of Honor as one of the true aces in the history of Marine aviation.

His citation for bravery reads: "Determined to thwart the enemy's attempt to bomb Allied ground forces and shipping at Vella Lavella on 15 August 1943, 1st Lt. Walsh repeatedly dived his plane into the enemy formation that outnumbered his own division six to one, and, although his plane was hit numerous times, shot down two Japanese dive bombers and one fighter."

Walsh, now 70, lives with his wife, Beulah, in Santa Ana. The couple has two grown sons.

He retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel in 1962.

It was 44 years ago that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto and the Japanese Imperial Headquarters were bent on vengeance because of the loss of Guadalcanal, captured by U.S. forces. The decision by Yamamoto to move Japanese fighters and dive bombers from aircraft carriers to land-based airstrips set the stage for Walsh to become a flying legend and eventually win the Medal of Honor.

On April 1, 1943, Walsh, then a first lieutenant, downed his first three Japanese planes.

His division of seven airplanes was relieved by six P-38 fighters. Just after Walsh's planes headed for home, the P-38s were attacked by a larger number of Japanese aircraft. Walsh circled back. Surprising the enemy, his group joined the dogfight, destroying and driving away the enemy aircraft.

Known among his peers as one of the toughest and most aggressive Marine fighter pilots ever to fly in combat, Walsh--born in Brooklyn and raised in Washington, D.C.--was credited with shooting down 21 Japanese aircraft, with another four probable kills.

Walsh was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Aug. 15 and Aug. 30, 1943.

He was the leader of an eight-plane division launched from Munda on New Georgia Island to provide support for naval and ground forces in the area of Vella Lavella, 180 miles from Guadalcanal. They met about 30 Japanese fighter planes and dive bombers head on and stopped the aircraft from attacking U.S. shipping and beachheads.

Walsh's Corsair was hit by 20-mm cannon fire, but he nursed the aircraft back to Munda. Walsh was never injured by machine gun or cannon fire but almost drowned when he ditched one of his planes at sea.

Two weeks later, Walsh was forced to land again at Munda because of engine trouble. He got another plane and was making his way back to the group over Kahili when he encountered 50 Japanese fighter planes.

He attacked and downed four enemy planes before his aircraft was shot down by cannon fire. He was later picked up at sea off Vella Lavella.

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