Out of the fierce fighting over the Southwest Pacific came a new legend for the children of airmen. Last week in New Guinea pilots were still talking about the final exploit of Major Ralph Cheli("pronounced Kelly," said a friend of his, "as in Colin Kelly").
Ralph Cheli, 23, fair-haired, blue-eyed, had 40 missions and 135 combat hours behind him in New Guinea; he had the D.F.C. and the Air Medal. He also had a young son, called "Butch" by fellow flyers looking over the baby pictures. Because of his executive duties he need not have flown missions; in fact, he rarely went out on routine jobs. "But when the mission was going to be tough," said the pilots, "we could be sure Cheli would be out there with us." On Aug. 18 Cheli went out with them to bomb and strafe the Dagua airfield.
It was a tough mission. Jap fighters crowded the formation as it approached Dagua, hugging the treetops. Zeros picked on Cheli particularly. His plane caught fire just before the formation came over the target.
Cheli knew it was on fire. He could have pulled up and bailed out, his fellow flyers said. "We were flying so tightly, however, that if he had done so he would have broken up the formation and ruined the attack, besides exposing others to isolated interception. Cheli undoubtedly realized that, and pressed his attack ferociously. His parachute bombs dropped among the Jap aircraft; he kept his guns blazing from one end of the field to the other, doing tremendous destruction. By that time his plane was in a bad way and his guns were white hot."
Lieut. William Pittman tried desperately to save Cheli. He pulled up out of formation head on for a Zero, exposing himself to the whole pack. Lightnings rescued him. But Cheli was beyond help. As he turned-out to sea he called to his wingman to take over. He put the plane down. Pittman said it seemed to explode when it hit the water.