Jesús Villamor

Text by Divan Muller
This little-known pilot made his mark in history by showing courage against overwhelming odds.
Jesús Antonio Villamor was born to a large family on 7 November 1914 in the province of Abra in the Philippines. He studied commerce in Manila, but instead of becoming a businessman, he became interested in aviation. In 1936, he joined the Philippine Army Air Corps to begin flight training. Villamor excelled as a cadet and was therefore selected to be sent to the USA for advanced flight training. He was transferred to training units in Texas and Colorado, before serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot. When Villamor returned to the Philippines, he was made director of the Philippine Air Corps Flying School.

Meanwhile, in 1939, World War II erupted in Europe. In 1940, the Empire of Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, making its goals of expansionism clear. The USA responded by imposing embargoes against Japan. On 7 December 1941, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, an American naval base in Hawaii. A few hours later, Japan attacked the Philippines. By then, Villamor had been transferred to the Philippines' 6th Pursuit Squadron, equipped with twelve obsolete Boeing P-26 'Peashooter' fighters. The Peashooters were vastly outclassed by modern Japanese Mitsubishi 'Zero' fighters, which proved to be a match for even the most advanced Allied fighters. Even so, the Philippine pilots showed considerable courage and put up a tremendous fight against their Japanese opponents. Despite the incredible disadvantage of having to fly older, slower, less manoeuvrable aircraft with less firepower, Villamor led his unit to shoot down three Zero fighters and one G3M bomber. Two of these Zeros were shot down by Villamor himself. Villamor's Peashooter was armed with only two 7.62 mm machine guns, but due to the Zeros' only weakness, a lack of sufficient armour, he was able to shoot down the enemy aircraft.

Ultimately, a handful of obsolete fighters and an ill-equipped army were not enough to stop the Japanese invasion. Villamor's squadron was destroyed, but he continued serving his country as an intelligence officer. After escaping and evading Japanese forces, he volunteered to return to the Philippines on board a submarine. Villamor then participated in covert missions and coordinated guerrilla operations against Japanese occupying forces. He gathered intelligence and sent reports to American General Douglas MacArthur, who used the information to plan the liberation of the Philippines.

Villamor was awarded several medals for bravery during the war. The first of these was a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). The citation read, "The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Jesús A. Villamor, Captain (Air Corps), U.S. Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy, whilst serving as pilot of a P-26 fighter airplane in the 6th Pursuit Squadron, Philippine Army Air Corps, attached to the Far East Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy Japanese forces on 10 December 1941, during an air mission over Air Batangas, Philippine Islands. Captain Villamor led six ancient P-26s in interception of some fifty-four attacking bombers and the harassing tactics of the Filipino flyers minimised damage to their Batangas field. Captain Villamor's unquestionable valour in aerial combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the Philippine Army Air Corps, and the United States Army Air Forces."
Villamor was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster to his DSC for shooting down enemy aircraft. He was the only Filipino to receive a DSC on two occasions. After the war, Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay awarded Villamor a Medal of Valour, the highest military award of the Philippine armed forces. Villamor died on 28 October 1971, at the age of 57. In 1982, the Philippine Air Force's primary airbase was renamed 'Colonel Jesús Villamor Air Base', in honour of the country's most famous combat pilot.