Dean ‘Diz’ Laird: The Only Navy Flying Ace to Down Both German and Japanese Aircraft During WWII

Photo Credit: 1. Photo12 / Universal Images Group / Getty Images 2. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Paolo Bayas / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

There were numerous flying aces during the Second World War. These aviators exhibited bravery and courage in the face of extreme danger, earning the status of “air ace” after downing at least five enemy aircraft. While the US Navy had its fair share of competent pilots, only one had victories against both Japanese and German aircraft.

Dean Samuel “Diz” Laird served as a naval aviator for the entirety of the war and is officially credited with 5.75 kills. Two of these were German aircraft, while the remainder were flown by the Japanese.

From San Fransisco to the USS Ranger

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Dean Laird was inspired to join the Navy. Just shy of his 21st birthday, he traveled to San Francisco to enlist, entering the cadet program. A few months later, he became a commissioned officer and, eventually, a naval aviator.

Aerial view of the USS Ranger (CV-4)
Aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-4), 1941. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Laird wanted to be stationed in the Pacific, believing that’s where the service’s air war would largely take place. Instead, he wound up in Scotland, supporting the British Fleet through a deployment aboard the USS Ranger (CV-4). The aircraft carrier was considered too slow for service in the Pacific, so was kept in the Atlantic for the majority of the Second World War.

Laird got quite seasick on the carrier and volunteered for as many missions as he could to get him off the vessel. On October 4, 1943, he made his first kills while flying a Grumman F4F Wildcat. He was patrolling with his squadron near Norway when German aircraft were spotted on their radar. Laird’s plane was much slower than the rest, so he saw two additional aircraft the rest had missed. He subsequently downed the Junkers Ju 88 and Heinkel He-115.

Dean Laird is transferred to the Pacific

Dean Laird was sent back to the US after his first tour of duty overseas. He trained on the new Grumman F6F Hellcat, before being transferred to the Pacific. He served first on the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), before being sent to the USS Essex (CV-9) while the former went in for repairs.

On both aircraft carriers, Laird flew in fighter sweeps over Japanese occupied territory in the Philippines and China, where he obtained the remainder of his credited kills. He recalled later in life that “it never entered my mind that I would ever get shot down. I thought I was too good.” He was right, but on one instance did come close to losing his life.

Crewmen standing around two Grumman F6F Hellcats
Grumman F6F Hellcats with their wings up preparing to launch from the USS Essex (CV-9), May 1945. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)

In December 1944, Laird’s dive bomber squadron was attacked over the Philippines by Japanese anti-aircraft weaponry, resulting in damage to his radio and rudders. He made it back to his fleet, which was some 250 miles away, but realized his landing gear wouldn’t drop. The naval aviator managed to land his aircraft by bumping along the deck, only to find his brakes were also broken.

Thankfully, his crew managed to stop his plane by slipping chocks under the wheels.

Dean Laird’s life following the war

Dean Laird remained in the Navy after the end of WWII, serving in the first jet squadron in 1947. He went on to serve in both Korea and Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, he flew Grumman A-6 intruders from Vietnam to Texas, making 32 trans-Pacific flights. Laird retired from the Navy as a commander in 1971. Throughout the course of his roughly 30-year career, he flew a total of 175 missions.

Movie card from 'Tora! Tora! Tora!'
Japanese aircraft taking off from an aircraft carrier in a scene from the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!. (Photo Credit: Twentieth-Century Fox / Getty Images)

Outside of his military career, Laird had a brief gig as a stunt pilot. He was asked to fly fighter aircraft in the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, which was a dramatized version of the events before and during Pearl Harbor. As the lead stunt pilot on the film, he logged over 160 hours of flight time and led his own Japanese dive-bomber squadron. He also helped choreograph the attack on Pearl Harbor depicted in the movie.

“The quintessential fighter pilot”

Dean Laird holds an impressive list of awards and accolades from his time with the Navy. These include, but are not limited to, the Audie Murphy Award, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Meritorious Service Medal.

Dean Laird sitting in a wheelchair, with sunglasses
Dean “Diz” Laird at a ceremony for the 76th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 2017. (Photo Credit: Michael Macor / The San Francisco Chronicle / Getty Images)

Laird is also included in two different halls of fame: one at the San Diego Air & Space Museum and the other at the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame, in Texas. When he was inducted into the latter, he was called the “quintessential fighter pilot.”

Holding and breaking records

Along with his numerous decorations and achievements for his military service, Dean Laird also holds (or previously broke) a number of records. At the 1949 National Air Races, he flew a McDonnell F2H Banshee based on the USS Midway (CV-41) from the Atlantic Ocean to Cleveland, Ohio. He won first place while also setting the record for the fastest air speed at that time: 549 MPH.

Laird still holds the record for the most arrested landings on a straight deck carrier, and was the first person to land a jet-powered aircraft on the deck of Midway. Lastly, he is the only American Navy flying ace to have victories over both Japanese and German pilots during the Second World War.

Dean Laird standing in the rear seat of a Beechcraft T-34C Turbo-Mentor
Dean “Diz” Laird stands in the rear seat of a Beechcraft T-34C Turbo-Mentor, the 100th aircraft he’s flown in his lifetime. (Photo Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Paolo Bayas/ U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain)

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At the age of 95, Laird broke another, more personal record when he flew his 100th aircraft. He was joined by Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Johnson, and the two of them went up in a Beechcraft T-34C Turbo-Mentor. This was Laird’s first time flying the aircraft and he celebrated by doing a series of aileron rolls.