Marine Corps Lt. Col. Kenneth Ambrose Walsh was considered by many to be one of the toughest, most aggressive combat pilots of World War II. That reputation as a hard-fighting ace solidified in 1943 in the South Pacific when he took out several Japanese aircraft to help secure the Solomon Islands for the Allies. His bravery earned him the Medal of Honor.
Walsh was born Nov. 24, 1916, in Brooklyn, New York, to parents Ambrose and Irene Walsh. He had a sister named Claire.
According to a 1944 article in The Morning Post, a Camden, New Jersey, newspaper, when Walsh was only 7 his father died and the family moved to Harrison, New Jersey. It wasn’t far from Newark (now, Liberty) International Airport, where Walsh would often ride his bike and spend hours watching small airplanes come and go.
Walsh was an outstanding track star for Dickinson High School, which he graduated from in 1933. The following December, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, not long after his 17th birthday.
His first orders were to Quantico, Virginia, where he served as an aviation mechanic. But Walsh wanted to be the one in the air — not fixing the aircraft — so from there, he went to flight training in Pensacola, Florida. He earned his wings in 1937 and spent the next few years serving on aircraft carriers.
In 1940, Walsh married Beulah Mae Barinott, and they had two sons, Kenneth Jr. and Thomas.
By September 1942, the U.S. was in the thick of the fighting of World War II, and Walsh had transferred into Marine Fighter Squadron 124. A month later, he was commissioned as second lieutenant.
Walsh was sent to the South Pacific in January 1943 with VMF-124, which became the first operational squadron to fly the F4U Corsair, one of the most capable carrier-based fighter-bombers of the war. Through April and May of 1943, then-1st Lt. Walsh shot down six enemy aircraft, making him the first ace to fly a Corsair.
His prowess in the skies only grew over the summer. By August, Walsh and his squadron were doing aerial combat missions in the Central Solomon Islands, well east of Papua New Guinea.
By Aug. 15, 1943, U.S. troops were trying to take over the small island of Vella Lavella, while Japanese aircraft were trying to thwart those efforts by bombing U.S. ground forces and the equipment that was flowing in. Walsh cut that attempt short by diving his aircraft into an enemy formation that vastly outnumbered his own by 6 to 1. He managed to take out two Japanese dive bombers and one fighter aircraft.
During the melee, Walsh’s Corsair was hit by 20mm cannon fire, which blew holes into a wing and the fuel tank. The plane was destroyed, but he still managed to fly it back to safety and land.
About two weeks later, on Aug. 30, Walsh and three others from his squadron were called upon to escort Army B-24 Liberators on a strike against Kahili, an enemy airfield on the island of Bougainville. After refueling at a forward base before the attack, the four aircraft took off again to rendezvous with the bombers. But as they did, Walsh’s aircraft began acting up and he was forced to make an emergency landing on the small island of Munda.
Thankfully, he had a friend in charge of the Allied airfield there, so he was able to quickly replace his Corsair with another, then rejoin the planned flight to Kahili.
Walsh had yet to link up again with his escort group when he ran into about 50 Japanese Zeros who were swarming the B-24s his squad was escorting. The Allied aircraft were busy doing their bombing runs and needed to be defended, so Walsh didn’t hesitate. Even though he was alone, he took the fight to the enemy aircraft, “striking with relentless fury,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.
Eventually, the other American pilots appeared to help alleviate some of the burden Walsh had been facing. Walsh took stock of his situation and subsequently destroyed four hostile fighters. By then, however, his aircraft had been badly damaged, so he had to disengage from the fighting. As Walsh tried to get away from the action, more Zeros continued to use him as a shellfire target until his fellow pilots sent them scattering.
As his aircraft lost all propulsion, Walsh was forced to landing off Vella Lavella, which had just been liberated by U.S. troops the week before. He was later picked up by Navy Seabees, who borrowed a boat to get him after seeing his aircraft splash into the sea.
Walsh returned to the U.S. about two months later, but his leadership and daring skill as an ace pilot inspired the men with him to keep up the fight. For his bravery, Walsh received the Medal of Honor on Feb. 8, 1944, from President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a ceremony in the White House Oval Office. That same month, he was promoted to captain.
Walsh remained in the Marine Corps after the war. In March 1946, he was assigned to the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, then he returned to the fleet for a few more years before the Korean War broke out. In 1950, he was sent to the peninsula with Marine Air Group 25.
He returned home at some point in 1951 and continued working his way up the ranks. In January 1962, Walsh retired as a lieutenant colonel out of El Toro Air Station in Southern California. He and his wife decided to stay in the area and settled in Santa Ana, California, that same year.
According to an article in the 1994 Orange County Register, Walsh continued to work with veterans’ groups and wrote for military publications. He also sought out several Japanese pilots, some who may have even shot him down.
“There is a camaraderie among pilots,” he told the newspaper. “You respect the skills of the other guy. Most have a code of ethics. I would never strafe a downed pilot. Most of them wouldn’t, either.”
Walsh died on July 30, 1998, of a suspected heart attack at his home in Santa Ana. According to his obituary in the Orange County Register, he was preparing to head to an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he and three other Medal of Honor recipients were to be honored.
Walsh is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His Medal of Honor can be found at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.