Those who did survive to earn that elite distinction of ace — shooting down at least five enemy aircraft in the heat and blood of battle — are almost gone, too.
America's remaining aces are literally the last of a dying breed. Fewer than 90 remain — mostly World War II and Korean War veterans. Nearly all of them are in their 90s.
A new book, "Wings of Valor: Honoring America's Fighter Aces," hopes to capture their legacy before it's too late.
Indeed, award-winning author Peter Collier and documentary photographer Nick Del Calzo describe their latest project as "a race against time."
"In my opinion, America's aces are the most unrecognized men in our military history," Del Calzo tells OFFduty. He and Collier want to fix that.
Their commemorative coffee-table book will feature portraits of the aging warriors, often alongside the vintage airborne beasts they rode into battle so many years ago.
The pair have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fuel the project. It ends May 3, with a goal of raising $65,000 to cover production costs. Every donation helps, they say, but backers kicking in $100 or more get a copy of the hardcover book and a thank you note from one of the featured aces.
The commemorative coffee-table book will feature portraits of the aging warriors.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Nick Del Calzo
Del Calzo and Collier previously collaborated on the award-winning New York Times best-seller, "Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty," now in its third edition. That book follows a similar format, with portraits of Medal of Honor recipients and their courageous stories.
All profits from "Wings of Valor" will go to the American Fighter Aces Association based at Seattle's Boeing Field.
"If there's an elite among fighter pilots, it's these men," says the association's president, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles "Chick" Cleveland.
"They helped shorten the wars and saved lives," says Cleveland, a Korean War Ace who flew F-86 Sabre jets, dogfighting his way through what became infamously known as MiG Alley.
Because of the dwindling time — about one or two aces die every month — Del Calzo has recruited a team of photographers to help capture the portraits needed for the book. Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Scott Nickell, now a professional photographer, is among them.
"Most of these aces will tell you, they may have been alone in the cockpit, but they know they didn't do it alone," Nickell says. "There was always a cast of many: plane maintainers, tire changers, ground crew, plane captains, guys who loaded the guns and bombs."
Ret. Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles G. "Chick" Cleveland fought during the Korean War with five kills to his credit. Cleveland currently serves as the president of the American Fighter Aces Association. A Kickstarter campaign to help fund the "Wings of Valor" project ends May 3, with a goal of raising $65,000 to cover the book's production costs.
Photo Credit: Nick Del Calzo
"The aces are a lot like the Medal of Honor guys who usually say, 'This medal is not mine. I wear it for the guys whose actions went unseen, who didn't come home, and ones that did, who were out there every day on the front lines doing the hard stuff.' "
Unlike the Medal of Honor recipients, however, Nickell says the aces know they're likely the last of their breed.
There has not been a new ace since the Vietnam War, when only a handful of pilots earned that distinction.
"There is a kind of sadness that it may never happen again, especially with the rise of drones," Nickell says. "But then there is also a realization that time moves forward, and that if you can ... keep people out of harm's way, well, maybe that's a better thing."