Retired general becomes Air Force's newest fighter ace

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AFRNS) -- A retired general had been waiting on a call for some time; 55 years to be exact.

Retired Lt. Gen. Charles G. Cleveland received a call on his home phone in January that turned out to be one of the most important calls of his life.

"That's how I found out the Air Force was officially recognizing me as an ace," General Cleveland said. "Right there on the phone."

But while the notification of his new-found status was brief and unceremonious, General Cleveland's journey to reach this point was a very long one.

It started in South Korea in 1952. A war was waging and then-Lieutenant Cleveland was an F-86 Sabre pilot with the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Kimpo Air Base. He was a skilled pilot and within eight weeks had already scored four kills -- each a Russian-made MiG-15.

"Each of those dogfights is burned in my brain," the West Point graduate said. "I can remember every minute of those battles like it happened yesterday."

Then on Sept. 21, 1952, Lieutenant Cleveland's flight once again found themselves in aerial combat with a group of MiGs. Lieutenant Cleveland negotiated his way behind one and let loose with the plane's six side-mounted .50-caliber machine guns. Some of his rounds hit the MiG and within seconds the enemy plane sprouted a trail of smoke and began to descend rapidly.

That was the last image he ever had of that MiG.

"At that moment we were being attacked by two other MiGs," the general said. "So my wingman had to call a break so we wouldn't get all shot up ourselves."

Because the general did not see the MiG crash or the pilot eject, he claimed a "probable" kill when he returned to the base. His wingman, then-Lt. Don Pascoe, insisted he claim a kill, but the general just did not feel right about it.

"There were rules for claiming a kill," he said. "You either had to see a fire that wouldn't go out, a plane crash or the pilot eject. Since I hadn't seen any of those happen, I just felt the right thing to do was claim a probable."

Soon after this event, the general returned home. He left South Korea with four kills, two probable kills and four damaged -- a record "any pilot would be proud of," General Cleveland said.

And there the story ended. Almost.

Years later, General Cleveland attended a meeting of the American Fighter Aces Association and met retired Lieutenant Dolph Overton. The two were classmates at West Point and served in South Korea at the same time.

When Lieutenant Overton heard the general's story about the probable kill, he decided to take it upon himself to prove the general had indeed shot down that MiG.

He searched thousands of records and spoke to dozens of people. Among them were Lieutenant Pascoe and retired Maj. Gen. Frederick C. Blesse, a double ace who was also General Cleveland's operations officer at Kimpo AB. They too thought General Cleveland should be awarded his fifth kill. So, with as many facts as he could put together, Lieutenant Overton submitted a package to the Air Force Board for Military Corrections.

The answer was a resounding "no." The board cited personal accounts could not be used as factual evidence and the records would remain unchanged.

With renewed energy, Lieutenant Overton kept pressing the issue and in 2003 he made an astounding discovery. The Russians had released detailed flight records from the Korean War and copies were in the National Archives. He compared the Russian records to General Cleveland's accounts and found a description of a downed MiG that seemed to match the story.

He called General Cleveland and said he had found his missing MiG.

"I had no idea what he was doing," General Cleveland said. "When we first met he told me he was going to prove I shot that MiG down, but I was like, 'Yeah, right.' But, by God, he really did go out and do it."

With this new information, Generals Cleveland and Blesse and Lieutenant Overton went before the records correction board in person. This time, the answer was "yes," as General Cleveland found out through a phone call in January.

"It's a great feeling to have the Air Force recognize me as an ace," he said. "And it's a real honor to be included with that great group of men who make up the rest of the aces."

Even more special is the fact that this recognition puts a stamp on his service in South Korea, a time the general names among the best in his life.

"I love the Air Force, I love flying and I love this country," he said. "I just hope I'm the last fighter ace ... because in order for there to be more, there has to be more fighting."

The phone rang again at his home. As the general leaned over to answer it, he smiled and said, "I hope they haven't changed their mind." (Courtesy of Air Force Print News)