Colonel Ernest Edward “Ernie” Bankey Jr was an American World War II ace and also a rare “Ace in a day”.
Ernest was born on August 28th , 1920, in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in Toledo, Ohio. A pilot friend-of-a-friend interested him in flying and at the age of eight and Ernest began building model planes. He spent his summers with his aunt in Cleveland, who lived right next door to the Cleveland Air Races.
He also participated in the Toledo Soap Box Derby, winning it twice in 1935 and 1936, the only youngster to do so.
His mother passed away when he was just nine years old.
After his graduation from high school, Ernest wanted to fly. The Air Corps wanted unmarried college graduates, but he didn't have a college graduate. Bankey learned that they were going to have Staff Sergeant pilots, so he put his general contracting business on hold and signed up for active duty in the Army Air Corps at Fort Hays in Columbia, Ohio, on April 1st , 1941. His first choice was mechanics school, but as they were full, he took a shot at his second option which was armament school.
Pending his wait to be accepted into Air Cadet School, he worked his way up to Staff Sergeant while teaching aerial gunnery techniques in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In the meantime, he also married Lillian Ruth “Ginny” Kontak on May 2nd , 1942, in Bowling Green, Ohio.
His long wait finally paid off as he was accepted into primary training, and subsequently earned his wings as a fresh Second Lieutenant at Williams AFB, Arizona, on July 28th , 1943. He flew primary training in the PT-13 Stearman at Tulare, California, then basic training in the Vultee BT-13 in modesto, California, and advanced training in the NAA AT-6 in Phoenix, Arizona.
He additionally underwent twin-engine training in the Curtiss AT-9, before transitioning to the P-38 Lightning. At the end of it all, he became assigned to the 383rd FS, 364th FG for a month of gunnery and bombing training at Muroc (now Edwards AFB), California.
Training was far from over at this time, as he went on to Van Nuys Airdrome, California, for formation flying and aerobatics training, before moving on to Oxnard Flight Strip (now Camarillo Airport) for additional gunnery and bombing training.
Finally, the 383rd Fighter Squadron moved to Santa Maria Airport, where they joined with the other two air Group Squadrons (the 384th and the 385th) making up the 364th Fighter Group. When the time came to ship to England, Bankey recalls: “We left from there by train cross-country for five days," Bankey relates, "and then we had our paperwork and physicals taken care of at Camp Shanks, New York. We left from New York Harbor on the Queen Elizabeth, with first class accommodations for five days, arriving at Liverpool, England, on the fifth of February, 1944. Then it was by train to Bury St. Edmunds, near Birmingham, and finally to where we were based, Honington Royal Air Force Base in East Anglia. It had pierced-steel planked runways, but the rest of the accommodations were first class—like permanent two-story stucco buildings with seven-foot tubs!"
Upon arrival in England, they were stationed near Birmingham at Honington Royal Air Force Base.
During his first tour in the ETO, Ernest Bankey flew the P-38J Lightning in which he scored one aerial victory and one probable. The aerial victory occurred on April 11th , 1944, near Halberstadt, Germany, when Bankey downed an Me-109. The probable was an FW-190 en route to Standal on April 29th .
Like many, Bankey returned for a second tour in the ETO in October and was assigned to the same Fighter Group, but this time to the 385th FS instead of the 383rd . Upon his return, the Group had already converted to the P-51 Mustang.
Bankey, a Captain by now, scored another Me-109 victory and another probable on November 26th , 1944, just northeast of Dummer Lake, whilst flying P-51D-15NA 44-15019 “Lucky Lady VI”.
Ace in a day
His moment in history occurred on December 27th , 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge in the Belgian Ardennes. Ernest Bankey takes us through that mission:
"We were getting our tails pushed back. The Germans were making a concentrated effort. The weather was so bad that no planes from England could get over there. But when it cleared there was an all-out effort by fighters. We were not directed to escort bombers; we were scheduled for a "rhubarb"—looking for targets of opportunity. I was flying with the 385th , but I was leading the 383rd Squadron that day. I was a Captain, and known in both squadrons.
We spotted some 200-plus aircraft down below us who were giving ground support to the enemy and chopping up our guys, coming on in like waves. Seeing them, I gave directions quickly to the squadron: 'Pick out your targets. Tally-ho!' So we jumped the whole flock of them and they busted up. My wingman stayed with me through two victories—as I recall, they were (Messerschmitt) 109s—and then he lost me in the combat confusion."
Bankey said he spotted three stragglers down below, identified them as FW-190s, dove down and picked out the third aircraft.”
His official encounter report of that day states:
“I was leading the 383rd Ftr Sq when 25 plus ea/c were sighted about 8,000 ft below. Diving to the attack, the ea/c broke, leaving us to select our tgts. My wingman and I took off after two Fw 190s. After a brief chase, I was able to get a 90° deflection shot at close range. The ea/c blew up in mid-air. My wingman got the other ea/c and lost sight of me right after this. (see confirmation by Lts Sandkaut and Schroeder) Turning SW, I saw three Jerries going NE. I got in behind them and found them to be FW 190s. After a running and turning fight, about 15 miles SW of Bonn, I was able to get strikes on the third plane. He went into a spin at 800 ft. The leader broke hard to the right and in so doing, I found him right under my plane's nose in a 5G turn. I used a 3 radii lead under the nose of my plane, fired and felt an explosion. I gave top rudder and rolled over to see only pieces of the 190. His wingman must have turned left because there were no a/c in the area. There was a fire in the woods over the area where the third man spun in fr 800'.
Coming back west, I tried to climb up to from with seven P-51s about 5,000 ft above me. Two Me 109s crossed below and in front of me, so I came out of the sun and fired a few long range bursts. They split up and I followed the lead ship. At about 800 yds, I gave a burst and saw hits on the fuselage and he started to lose coolant. The 109 went into a shallow dive and I followed until he hit the ground.”
"After that one I figured I better get out of there, so I climbed back up again, and that's when I saw this whole gaggle of (Focke-Wulf radial-engine) FW 190s. The German forces usually flew in a V line—not like our type of four-plane formations. When I saw this line of 20-plus aircraft—they usually flew in 20s or 25s—I saw that they were flying with the sun behind, a fatal mistake. So I dove down on that line, intending to cut into the end of it. They saw me, gave it the gun, holding their positions, and started going down. I kept after them, and we got down pretty close to treetop level—at least steeple-level, because I was glancing where am I at on the ground. I was able to trigger-in on one."
That was the fifth victory that day, making Bankey one of those rare "ace-in-a-day" fighter pilots.
The P-51 Mustang is an inline engine aircraft, so when Bankey noticed about 25 inline engined airplanes behind him, he thought at first that they were fellow P-51s. Fortunately, he soon realized that they were actually German inline Me-109s.
There he was, at that moment in time, sandwiched between two groups, each of about 25 German fighters, when he made his famous radio call:
"This is Sunkist Two. I've got 50 Jerries cornered over Bonn. Will share same with any P-51s in the vicinity. See me at smokestack level. Over and out."
Help quickly came, as he noticed a flight of 10 to 12 blue-nosed Mustangs engage the group of enemy aircraft behind him. His encounter report continues:
“During this encounter, ten to twelve blue-nosed P-51s attacked the last two waves of ea/c then on my tail. As the
P-51s came diving on me, I turned to the left and joined four of them who were in pursuit of two Me 109s. The leader of this flight shot down the rear ae/c and I attacked the other. At four-hundred yds, I opened fire, saw strikes, and the Me 109 started streaming coolant and went into a shallow turn to the right. One of the bluenosed P-51s fired upon him and the ea/c dove in fr 1,000 ft”.
Having exhausted all my ammunition but 100 rds in each in-board gun, my out-board starboard gun having jammed after 100 rds, and being low on gas, I broke off further combat over Bonn and landed at A-74 to refuel.
I claim the destruction in the air of four (4) Fw 190s and one and a half (1 1/2) Me 109s (one Me 109 being shared with the blue-nosed P-51).”
For this mission, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Unit Citation, and also earned the unofficial title of "The Tiger of Bonn."
His aircraft, Lucky Lady VI was lost on April 10th, 1945, flown by F/O Theodore F. Lasch (MACR 13771). Bankey was assigned a brand-new P-51D-25NA which he dubbed "Lucky Lady VII".
On a mission just north of the Nordingen airfield on April 16th , 1945, Bankey got another two Me-109s, bringing his total to 9.5 aerial kills.
He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions on April 16th , 1945, where he also destroyed four enemy aircraft on the ground and damaged another four in the process. The citation reads:
“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Captain (Air Corps) Ernest E. Bankey, Jr. (ASN: 0-752095), United States Army Air Forces, for gallantry in action against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-51 fighter airplane of the 364th Fighter Group, EIGHTH Air Force, on 16 April 1945. Having furnished fighter escort to a target in Germany, Captain Bankey, with his Squadron, proceeded to an enemy airdrome according to plan. In the face of intense ground fire, he made six sweeps across the field, destroying four and damaging four enemy aircraft on the ground. Realizing that his plane had sustained numerous hits and that he was now alone, he withdrew and set a course for base. On the return journey he observed another airfield and made futile attempts to contact he group leader. Although only two of his guns were operational, he circled the field and as three fighters took off, made a daring attack. Expending the last of his ammunition, he scored strikes on two of the planes which crashed and exploded. Captain Bankey's boldness, disregard for personal safety, and fearless initiative during this action attest to his determination to destroy the enemy at any cost.”
In all, during his two tours in the ETO, Captain Ernest Bankey flew 110 combat mission and accumulated over 500 combat flying hours. He destroyed 9.5 enemy aircraft in the air and another 7 on the ground. Furthermore, he got two probables in the air and 5 enemy aircraft damaged on the ground. He also is responsible for destroying 44 locomotives.
His decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Medal with 9 Oak Leaf Clusters and the French Croix De Guerre with Palm.
He returned to civilian life after WWII, in January of 1946, where he worked as a general contractor. He returned to service with the USAF however in 1953 and served as a fighter/bomber officer/chief USAF Europe, stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany.
After Germany, he moved on to Libya, North Africa.
In August of 1958, he was assigned to Vandenberg AFB, California, where he served as a site commander for the first intercontinental ballistic missile launch into the Pacific by an Air Force crew on September 19th , 1959.
He recalled: “I was a major at that time. We went down to Convair, San Diego, for training on the five-story Atlas missile. After that first Atlas Vandenberg launch we became kind of the “daddies” of the ICBMs.”
The Atlas was later used in Florida as the booster for the Mercury and Gemini space flights.
Colonel Bankey retired from the USAF at SAC Headquarters, Offutt AFB, Nebraska, in 1968. He returned to California and joined Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, where he worked on deep space projects until his retirement in 1975.
Bankey and his wife had two sons, two daughters, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Sadly, Ernest Bankey passed away on June 10th , 2009, and was buried at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park in Camarillo, Calif., on June 15th, 2009.
His wife Ginny passed away not much later on July 16th , 2009, and was in-urned next to her husband.
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