Alex Vraciu, a fighter pilot who became one of the Navy’s top flying aces during World War II, once downing six Japanese planes in eight minutes during a battle dubbed the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, died Jan. 29 in West Sacramento, California. He was 96.

He had Alzheimer’s disease, said his son Robert Vraciu.

Vraciu was credited with destroying 19 Japanese planes in the air and 21 on the ground – ranking for several months as the Navy’s top fighter ace.

His most noted exploit came on June 19, 1944, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The U.S. assault on the Mariana Islands was underway, and Vraciu had already distinguished himself in the Pacific by shooting down a dozen enemy planes. As he put it, he “had a job to do: clear the sky.”

Piloting his F6F Hellcat, he looked out at an enemy force that he compared to a “swarm of bees, they were so thick against the water below.” The first three kills came easily, he said. He kept attacking, despite the coating of engine oil that muddied his windshield. The sixth kill, he said, blew up with its bomb load.

“It was sort of like ripping a razor through a bunch of cotton,” he told a reporter at the time.

The day after that engagement, Vraciu shot down another Imperial plane, bringing his total to 19 kills.

“This, for many of us, was our payback for Pearl Harbor,” Vraciu told the Contra Costa Times of California decades later. “That’s exactly how I felt.”

He was awarded the Navy Cross, the highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor.

Before the action in the Marianas, the Navy had offered Vraciu a chance to return home when, for the second time, his aircraft carrier was torpedoed. He declined the opportunity then, and after the “turkey shoot” he again returned to combat.

On Dec. 14, 1944, he was strafing an enemy airfield on the Philippine island of Luzon when antiaircraft fire struck his plane.

“I knew I’d had it,” he told the Houston Chronicle years later. “Oil was gushing out and going all over my canopy, and my oil pressure was rapidly dropping. There was no way I’d be able to get back to my carrier.”

He parachuted to the ground having made up his mind, he said, that he would not be captured. Philippine guerrillas ran to meet him, according to accounts of the incident, and accompanied him to safety.

In the aftermath, the Japanese “grabbed about a hundred men from a village we passed by and tried to make them tell where the guerrillas had taken me,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “They didn’t know, but the (Japanese) tortured them and killed more than 20. That is something I have just had to learn to live with.”

Vraciu was reported missing in action. Five weeks later, he joined a unit of U.S. forces, emerging from his absence with a Japanese saber, a Japanese pistol and a 1-inch beard.

Alexander Vraciu, the son of Romanian immigrants, was born Nov. 2, 1918, in East Chicago, Indiana. His father was a police officer, and his mother was a homemaker.

Vraciu graduated from DePauw University in Indiana in 1941 before leaving for the Pacific. He was a wingman to Edward “Butch” O’Hare, the Navy flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient who died during the war.

After World War II, Vraciu was a Navy test pilot, among other assignments, and commanded a unit of fighter pilots. He retired from the Navy in 1964 with the rank of commander and later was a trust officer with Wells Fargo bank, his son said.

Besides the Navy Cross, his military decorations included several awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

Before Vraciu left for the war, an uncle – unaware of his nephew’s skill – promised him $100 for every enemy plane he took down.

“I didn’t know then that the big guy would turn out to be a record breaker,” the uncle told a reporter in the summer of 1944, when Vraciu returned to the United States on furlough. “I’m glad he came home now because if he stayed there any longer I’d have to buy the (Japanese) air force.”