March 21, 2013 - Col. Robert J. "Shorty" Rankin, the first P-47 pilot to destroy five German Me 109 fighters in a single mission, passed away at his winter home in Jensen Beach, Florida, on March 14 at the age of 94.
Rankin dedicated 32 years of service to his country following his draft into the U.S. Army in 1941. Moving quickly from Army Air Corps flying cadet, through basic flight school, and into P-47 combat fighter pilot training, he was assigned to the 56th Fighter Group, otherwise known as "Zemke's Wolfpack," headed by the famous aerial combat leader Col. Hubert Zemke.
On May 12, 1944, Robert shot down five German Me 109 fighters during a single combat mission. During that same battle, he destroyed an enemy plane attempting to shoot down Col. Zemke. For his efforts, Rankin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross - second only to the Medal of Honor. By the end of his tour in August 1944, Rankin was credited with 10 aerial victories, one probable, and two damaged.
In 1950, Rankin served as the director of operations over the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing in Korea, and over the next 11 years commanded six fighter-interceptor squadrons. He was promoted to Colonel on November 9, 1963, and later retired as vice commander of the 20th Air Division on April 1, 1973.
Other military decorations include the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star with one oak leaf cluster, the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, the Army Air Force Commendation Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal with one oak leaf cluster, the Presidential Unit Citation, and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with one oak leaf cluster.
Rankin, who flew a least 30 different aircraft types while serving his country, has spoken at numerous aviation events across the U.S. and Europe. At EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2007, he and German Ace Gunther Rall appeared at a special Warbirds in Review presentation. He also was part of the Aces Program that year at Theater in the Woods.
EAA also had the opportunity to interview Rankin for a Timeless Voices episode during Sun 'n Fun 2004. (Watch the videos below.)
He was preceded in death by his childhood sweetheart and wife of 60 years, Louise, who passed in 2003. He is survived by his wife Maree Krug Rankin and two sons, Robert, of Homewood, Illinois, and Gregory, of Tampa, Florida, and several grandchildren.
Of all his accomplishments, Rankin most cherished the fact that he never lost a pilot in an aircraft accident. He was a man devoted to the military, his family, and aviation, and will be missed by many.