By Frederick A. Johnsen
Donald McPherson came to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2021 to get with a special friend from the past. Parked on the Warbird ramp is a Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat restored exactly like the one Don flew in combat against Japan in 1945.
The Hellcat carries the same markings as the one Don and several other pilots rode to victory in World War II. The fighter is part of the Fagen Fighter Museum in Granite Falls, Minnesota. Evan Fagen worked with Steven Hinton and a crew in Chino, California, to breathe life into this Hellcat after it had been ground bound for 40 years.
When Evan Fagen first chose these markings for the museum’s Hellcat, he did not know pilot Don McPherson lived in a small Nebraska farm town. Evan made his acquaintance and began a friendship that was evident as the two talked about the Hellcat at a Friday Warbirds in Review session.
Steven Hinton told the crowd more than 12,000 Hellcats were built, and the fresh restoration at AirVenture makes the total number of Hellcats currently flying six aircraft. Steven and Evan felt compelled to get this Hellcat refurbished in Don’s markings and fly it to Nebraska to share the results with him. “Seldom do you have a chance to restore an airplane for a veteran,” Steven said.
The Hellcat was missing some components. Its fuel system was dried and cracked and needed rework.
Hinton told the audience, “The Hellcat is an easy airplane to fly.” Employing varying degrees of combat maneuvering flaps, “It can turn exceptionally tight,” he added.
His first fight was an airfield strike on Kyushu, during which Don fired rockets and machine guns at a Mitsubishi Betty twin-engine bomber on the ground and watched it explode. In the abrupt pull-up the new combat pilot made low to the ground, the engine of his Hellcat quit. He restarted it with a seatback-slamming jolt, he recalled. Upon landing, Don’s airplane captain greeted the returning warrior and told him, “There’s a hole about a foot behind your back.” Don’s first combat saw him give, and receive, damage.
Another sortie found Don and his shipmates facing Japanese Val dive bombers, probably aloft to avoid being caught on the ground during a bombing raid. Two succumbed to the guns of his F6F.
A special mission to fly combat air patrol (CAP) for American radar picket destroyers north of Okinawa became an aerial melee when the Hellcats arrived as hundreds of kamikaze aircraft were attacking the picket ships. He saw two floatplanes boring deliberately for a destroyer. Overshooting one of the enemy kamikaze planes, Don downed the other. In the ensuing fight, he claimed two more victories. McPherson was an ace, listing five aerial victories.
After the war, promotion for ensigns was slow in coming, so Don returned to the family farm in Nebraska, also conducting rural mail delivery for the post office.