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In Memoriam: World War II Ace Commander Dean S. “Diz” Laird, USN (Ret.)

Aug. 17, 2022 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret that I inform you of the passing of Navy World War II ace Commander Dean S. “Diz” Laird, U.S. Navy (Retired), on 9 August 2022 at age 101. Diz Laird entered the U.S. Navy in January 1942 and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in 1971 as the executive officer of Aviation Air Transportation Ferry Squadron THREE TWO (VRF-32). Diz is the only Navy ace to shoot down both German and Japanese aircraft, finishing the war credited with 5 ¾ kills. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and five Air Medals. He was one of the last living aces from World War II. 

Diz enlisted in the Navy Aviation Cadet program on 2 January 1942, and received his commission on 11 August 1942. Following flight training at Naval Air Station Miami, he was designated a naval aviator on 21 October 1942. The next month, he reported to Fighter Squadron FOUR (VF-4) “Red Rippers” embarked on carrier
USS Ranger (CV-4), flying the F4F Wildcat fighter. 

On 4 October 1943, Ranger executed Operation Leader, a surprise strike on German shipping along the coast of German-occupied Norway, near the Arctic Circle. At least five German (or German-controlled) ships, including a large tanker and a troopship, were sunk or beached, with German casualties estimated as high as 350 going down with the ships. The raid severely disrupted shipment of critical iron ore from northern Norway to Germany for several months. Four of Ranger’s aircraft were lost, three to anti-aircraft fire and one to accident. The pilot and gunner of one downed SBD Dauntless were killed, and the pilot and gunner of another SBD were captured. One TBF Avenger was downed and only the pilot survived. 

At around 1400 on 4 October 1943, radar detected three German aircraft approaching Ranger. By then, the unlimited visibility of the morning had given way to extensive cloud cover. Two pairs of Ranger VF-4 fighters played cat and mouse with the German aircraft in the clouds. Finally, Lieutenant (j.g.) Diz Laird and his flight leader located a Ju-88D twin-engine bomber and took turns shooting it full of holes—unlike the lightly constructed Japanese bombers, German aircraft did not immediately burst into flame when hit—before the plane finally crashed in the ocean. Laird subsequently sighted an He-115B twin-engine float plane flying at very low altitude and hit it. The float plane attempted to land on the water, but one of the float pylons collapsed and it cartwheeled into the sea. These were the first German aircraft shot down by U.S. Navy aircraft in World War II. (See H-Gram 022 for an overview of Operation Leader, and attachment H-022-3 for full detail.) 

After Ranger returned to the States, VF-4 transitioned to the new F6F Hellcat fighter. Flying from USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), Laird shot down two Japanese Kawasaki “Tony” fighters near Manila on 25 November 1944. After VF-4 cross-decked to Essex (CV-9), Laird was nearly shot down in December 1944 over the Philippines, when he was hit by anti-aircraft fire that also downed the squadron’s commanding officer. Laird was able to get his bullet-riddled fighter 250 miles back to the carrier, making a successful wheels-up landing on the flight deck. On 16 January 1945, near Hainan Island, China, Laird was flying in great pain with what turned out to be an inflamed appendix, when he shot down a Mitsubishi “Hamp” fighter while protecting a U.S. Navy aircraft on a reconnaissance mission. 
On 16 February 1945, flying near the Japanese Home Islands, Laird shot down a Mitsubishi Ki-21-II “Sally” twin-engine bomber and, the next day, shot down two more fighters while escorting bombers attacking heavily defended aircraft engine factories near Tokyo, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. Laird would be credited with 5 ¾ kills at the end of the war.

In April 1945, Laird was sent back to the States—over his protest—where he served in Experimental Fighter Squadron 200 (XVF-200), flying kamikaze strike profiles on U.S. ships. Laird continued serving in the U.S. Navy, including in the Navy’s first jet fighter squadron (VF-171) at Quonset Point from August 1947 to September 1949, flying the FH-1 Phantom, F2H Banshee, P-80 Shooting Star, and F8F Bearcat aircraft. VF-171 was the first squadron to carrier-qualify in jets, aboard light carrier USS Saipan (CVL-48) in May 1948. As part of the National Air Races, Laird won a race flying an F2H Banshee from USS Midway (CV-41) in the Atlantic to Cleveland, Ohio, with the fastest speed recorded at the National Air Races to that time (549 miles per hour). He was one of the first naval aviators selected for exchange duty with the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to the 84th Interceptor Squadron in October 1949, flying the F-84 jet fighter. 

Other tours included serving as Executive Officer of Fighter Squadron FIVE ONE (VF-51), flying the F9F-6 Cougar, just missing the Korean War in July 1953. In 1959, he served as executive officer of Fighter Squadron ONE TWO ONE (VF-121), flying the F3H Demon, F11F Super Tiger, and F9F Panther. In 1960, he assumed command of Fighter Squadron TWO ONE THREE (VF-213) flying the F2H Banshee and F-9F. Of note, the F3H was notoriously accident-prone, and this period included the highest post–World War II operational loss rates. 

While still on active duty in 1969, Diz was one of the pilots flying simulated Japanese aircraft in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (which came out in 1970), taking part in the most technically demanding scenes, including the first take-off of a “Val” dive-bomber from the carrier Akagi (actually USS Yorktown [CVS-10] with a fake “Japanese” deck overlaid on the flight deck). He also flew the “Kate” dropping torpedoes over Southeast Loch at Pearl Harbor while attacking “Battleship Row.” 
Diz led the Tailhook Association for several years during the 1960s and 1970s, and he started Tailhook’s educational foundation. He was a naval aviation “Golden Eagle.” In 2016, he was one of 35 aces to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, DC, in a ceremony that recognized all 1,450 aces from all U.S. wars. He was a member of the American Fighter Aces Association and the Distinguished Flying Cross Society. He was a fixture at commemorative events in the San Francisco and San Diego areas up until last year. 

Diz had a total of 8,285 flight hours, including 3,662 in jets, 4,623 in props, and 1,230 in civilian aircraft. He had 520 fixed-wing traps. 
In July 2016, at age 95, Diz took the controls of a T-34C Turbomentor, the 100th type of aircraft he had flown. I had the privilege to speak with Diz aboard the museum carrier Hornet (CV-12) in Alameda, California, in the fall of 2016. He was incredibly sharp, with a great memory, gracious, and possessed of an engaging wit. What an extraordinary career and what a hero! A great American who will be truly missed. The U.S. Navy is exceedingly grateful for his service.