Think of the top Air Force aces of World War II and the names most likely to come to mind are Francis S. “Gabby” Gabreski, Bob Johnson, or George Preddy of Eighth Air Force in Europe and Richard I. Bong, Thomas B. McGuire, or Gerald R. Johnson of Fifth Air Force in the Pacific. It often is overlooked that of USAAF’s three dozen highest scorers, four flew with the less publicized Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO).
The leader in that theater was Capt. John Voll, with 21 victories in five months, followed by Maj. Herschel Green, who shot down 18 enemy planes in 15 months (four of them Ju-52 transports), and Capt. James Sullins “Sully” Varnell, with 17 confirmed. Other high-scoring but little-noted MTO aces are Majs. Samuel J. Brown and Robert C. Curtis, with 15.5 and 14 victories, respectively. Of these men, Varnell’s achievement was the most spectacular. All his victories came within 67 days. We believe that only Capt. Don Gentile of Eighth Air Force’s 4th Fighter Group surpassed that record.
Varnell, a 21-year-old native of Charleston, Tenn., graduated from flying school at Marianna, Fla., in February 1943. Early that summer, he joined the 2d Squadron, 52d Fighter Group, in North Africa after the German surrender in May 1943. His squadron, equipped with older model Spitfires, then moved to Sicily. In December 1943, it moved to Corsica as part of XII Tactical Air Command. The group’s primary mission was to support ground forces, with infrequent opportunity for air combat. Shortly before moving in May 1944, to Madna on Italy’s Adriatic coast under Fifteenth Air Force, the group began converting to P-51 Mustangs. Its primary task now became escorting bombers on long-range missions to targets in southern Germany, Austria, Romania, and the Balkans, where enemy fighter opposition was intense, especially around Munich, Vienna, and Ploesti.
A few days after the 2d Squadron became operational in Italy, 2d Lieutenant Varnell launched his string of victories with a double on May 30. The following day, he attacked 30 enemy fighters bound on intercepting Fifteenth Air Force bombers in the Ploesti area, some 600 miles from Madna–the equivalent of the distance from UK bases to Berlin. Again he shot down two Luftwaffe fighters, and nine days later his fifth confirmed.
What kind of person was this rising young ace? Fred Ohr, another 2d Squadron ace, now a practicing dentist in Chicago, describes him as a laid-back southerner, an outstanding pilot and marksman liked by everyone. Varnell, who had exceptional eyesight, could spot enemy aircraft long before other pilots could. Dr. Ohr says the squadron pilots accused Varnell of carrying binoculars in his cockpit, a charge he stoutly denied.
When Varnell climbed into his P-51, he left behind his laid-back demeanor to become one of the most aggressive and skilled combat leaders in the theater. On June 16, the 2d Squadron tangled with more than 50 enemy fighters over Czechoslovakia. Varnell got his third double that day. Then, when his guns jammed, he continued to attack the enemy fighters, driving them off the tail of a crippled bomber. He would, as Dr. Ohr recalls, come to the aid of anyone in trouble, no matter what the odds–a good man to fly with.
One of Varnell’s two triples came on July 9, again over Ploesti. Diving on a large formation of enemy fighters that were about to attack the bomber stream, he shot down an Me-109, then pursued another through enemy flak and falling bombs, directly over the target. As the enemy fighter burst into flames, Varnell made a climbing 180 to get out of the falling bombs and picked up a third Messerschmitt, which he damaged. Trailing smoke, the Me-109 continued its attack on the bombers until Varnell pulled around in a tight turn, got on its tail, and finished it off. His score now stood at 15–a tie with Major Green as leading ace in the theater.
Varnell’s final victory came on Aug. 4 while returning from a shuttle escort to the USSR. Over Romania, he saw a Ju-52 below, dived down, and destroyed it. Added to the 16 fighters he had shot down, that final tally established him as the 10th-ranking Mustang ace of World War II, all in the span of less than 10 weeks. It is interesting to speculate on what his final score might have been had he flown an extended tour like most of the high-scoring aces in Europe and the Pacific.
That was not to be. Varnell, now a captain twice awarded the Silver Star, was sent home to instruct fledgling fighter pilots. On April 9, 1945, a month before V-E Day, Capt. James S. Varnell was killed when his fighter plane crashed near Pinellas, Fla. His brilliant combat record never has had the recognition it deserves. He was one of the great, if little remembered, fighter pilots of that long-ago war.
Published January 1993. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.