The first time he faced enemy fighters — a swarm of German Messerschmitts on the southern coast of Sardinia on May 19, 1943 — P-40 pilot Herschel "Herky" Green was convinced he was going to die.
"Your heart just about jumps out of your damn body," he once recalled.
The 22-year-old Kentucky native not only survived his first mission — despite being wounded and suffering severe damage to his plane — but he also scored his first kill and was rapidly on his way to becoming the leading ace of the 15th Air Force, a record he held until he was grounded by headquarters after his 100th combat mission.
Green, who scored 18 aerial victories as a fighter pilot in Europe and Africa from 1943 to 1944, died Aug. 16 of cancer at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in the Los Angeles area, said his wife of 60 years, Jeanne. He was 86.
"He was what would really be called a tiger," Art Fiedler of Oxnard, who was Green's wingman on several missions, told The Times this week.
"This man had the quickest reaction of anybody in the group," Fiedler said. "As soon as somebody called out 'bogies!', Herky would immediately drop his [auxiliary fuel] tanks and take after them. He was a fantastic pilot, he was gung ho, and he was an excellent shot."
Green never forgot his dramatic trial by fire in May 1943.
He was leading one of four flights in the 317th Fighter Squadron, which consisted of 16 P-40 Warhawks, when, he recalled in a 1994 interview with the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, "all hell broke loose."
"Break left, Mayfair Red, break left!" Green remembered a fellow pilot yelling over the radio, warning him to take immediate evasive action.
Messerschmitts flashed past him in pairs "like a swarm of bees," Green recalled. "There were just airplanes everywhere, and it seemed like most of them were shooting at me — and they were getting hits."
When one Messerschmitt streaked directly in front of him, he said, "I just put my nose on his and started firing. It was the only thing I knew to do. I managed to get some hits on him."
The enemy plane exploded as it passed Green. Then, he recalled, "I felt a whomp, you know, and I knew someone had hit me with cannon fire right behind my head."
At the same time, he said, he realized that his radio and some cockpit instruments had been shot out.
"This is it," he remembered thinking. "I can't exist in this environment."
After pulling out of a spin, he headed his plane into a cloud where joy over having downed his first enemy plane was not on his mind.
"I had a feeling of elation I was still breathing when I got in that cloud," said Green, who was promoted to captain a few days after the mission.
"He described it as 'the mother of all dogfights,' " Fiedler said. "Six of them had him trapped and were giving him their personal attention. After he shot up one and it exploded, the five others redoubled their efforts.
"You can't comprehend the damage that his airplane took. It's a miracle it didn't collapse when it landed on the ground. The maintenance people took one look at it and hauled it off to the junkyard to be used for parts."
Fiedler added: "That's a hell of a first mission — to get a victory and a Purple Heart at the same time."
After surviving half a dozen close calls, Green developed a strong sense that he would survive the war.
"Many times after that, I would tear into large gaggles of Luftwaffe fighters with just a wingman, and my only thought was how many we could get before they got away. I know that sounds crazy. Maybe it was," he wrote in the 1996 book "Herky! The Memoirs of a Checkertail Ace."
On one mission in January 1944, Green was credited with shooting down six enemy aircraft.
Two months later, he took command of the 317th Fighter Squadron of the 325th Fighter Group, which was known as the "Checkertails" because of the yellow-and-black checkerboard pattern on their planes' tail sections.
That September — after flying 100 combat missions in P-40s, P-47s and P-51s and destroying 18 aircraft in the air and 10 on the ground — Green was assigned to the staff at 15th Air Force headquarters. Among his many decorations were a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star and two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Green was born in Hickory, Kentucky on July 3, 1920, and grew up in nearby Mayfield. He began his lifelong love of flying at age 5, when two barnstormers made an emergency landing near his rural school. As thanks for inviting them home while their plane was being repaired, they gave the boy a ride in their open-cockpit biplane.
Green enrolled in the U.S. government's Civilian Pilot Training Program while attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 1940 and enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1941, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
He remained in the military after the war and retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1964. He then worked in the international sales division of Hughes Aircraft Co. in Culver City, California, before retiring in 1982.
At his funeral service Tuesday at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, four planes from Edwards Air Force Base saluted Green with a missing-man formation flyover.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Anita and Kathryn.
Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made in Green's memory to the Little Company of Mary Community Health Foundation, 4101 Torrance Blvd., Torrance, CA, 90503. Checks should be payable to LCM-CHF (memo: Rehabcentre — in memory of Herschel H. Green).