A hard-scrabble childhood in Depression-era Oklahoma steeled the young Jim Morehead for even rougher days ahead in dogfights with Japanese and Nazi pilots in World War II.
Retired Col. James B. Morehead, 94, became one of the country's most highly decorated fighter aces, winning two Distinguished Service Crosses, a Silver Star and 16 other air medals.
Next month, the Petaluma resident will be honored as part of an exhibition at the Petaluma Museum called "Flight: A Tribute to Aviation." The exhibit opening Feb. 2 will include a personal tribute on Feb. 5, which will be dedicated as James B. Morehead Day in the city of Petaluma.
The exhibit will trace American aviation history, including the 100th anniversary of first airmail flight, when the young flyer Fred Wiseman braved dicey weather on Feb. 17, 1911 and delivered mail from Petaluma to Santa Rosa.
Today, Morehead lives on a ranch on the outskirts of Petaluma where he displays his huge selection hunting and fishing trophies and memorabilia from his military service, which started in 1940 at Stockton Field. He retired from a desk job at the Pentagon in 1967.
Morehead, who friends address simply as "Colonel," graduated in April 1941 from the Army Air Corps flight school and was the sole pilot trainee among 120 students to be selected for assignment to a fighter unit at Hamilton Army Airfield.
He credits his experience as a youth hunting wild game to help feed his family for his success and composure as a fighter pilot.
If he hadn't been in the hospital recuperating from a mid-air collision, Morehead would have been sent with the rest of his unit to the Philippines after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He said many of his buddies ended up being captured and forced to death in the Bataan Death March.
Morehead fought and survived against the odds during the "early, dark days" of fighting in the southwest Pacific, when the Japanese were scoring victory after victory, said his friend and military historian Leon Delisle.
"He is a great man and a true American treasure. There is no one like him," Delisle said. "He represents everything that is good about America. He is a kind man who has seen a lot of war, and he is not jaded by his experiences."
Morehead is credited with seven enemy kills as a flying ace, seven Japanese fighters and one Nazi, he said.
April 25, 1942 was a pivotal day in Morehead's life and, he believes, for the war in the Pacific.
Every day for more than a month, Japanese forces had bombed the Australian city of Darwin. Morehead's unit had recently lost two commanders in battle.
Just 25 years old, then-2nd Lt. Morehead — exactly one year out of cadet school but with several air battles already behind him — led a flight of eight P-40 fighter planes toward a formation of 31 Japanese "Betty" bombers and their accompanying fighter escorts returning from Darwin.
"I did a slow roll," he recounted, and surfaced out of the way of the bomber's rear-facing guns.
"I led the lead bomber by 90 feet," he said, recalling how he timed his fire to strike the plane. "My bullets went right into his cockpit and engine."