Arthur “Hawk” Hawkins was “smart, aggressive and absolutely fearless,” said retired Navy Capt. Bill Dixon, who flew with Hawkins in crucial battles in the western Pacific. Hawks eventually became a retired captain too, but he was a junior officer when he blazed a path of glory across Pacific skies in the Grumman F6F Hellcat, the fighter that almost singlehandedly turned the tide of the air-to-air war against Japan.
Hawkins was one of a handful of Americans to be awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor, three times.
Born in Texas in 1922, Hawkins became an aviator after enlisted service, He was inspired in part by the death in 1942 of his older brother, an Army fighter pilot shot down in the South Pacific. Hawkins underwent flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas, and Opa Locka, Fla.
Hawkins went into combat with squadron VF-31, the “Flying Meataxes,” aboard the light carrier USS Cabot (CVL 28). He was extremely proficient in the Hellcat, the fighter that wrested command of the sky from Japan’s vaunted Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The Hellcat was comparatively heavy, nearly indestructible, yet highly maneuverable. “Hawk knew how to make airplane perform.” said Barrett Tillman, author of “Hellcat: The F6F in World War II.”
On a Sept. 13, 1944 mission from Cabot near the Philippines, Hawkins achieved the rare feat of shooting down five Japanese aircraft in one day. On September 21, he was credited with four. In another battle, Hawkins was facing a possible head-on collision with a Japanese Kate dive-bomber when he shot it down. Hawkins contributed significantly to “just plain destroying Japanese air power,” said Tillman. “No fighter other than the Hellcat even comes close.”
Hawkins shrugged off one of the great battles in the Philippines in a conversation with his daughter, Naval Reserve Capt. Jill Votaw, by saying, simply, “I was there.”
Hawkins was the Navy’s 10th-ranking air ace, with 14 air-to-air victories and three “probables.” He destroyed 39 Japanese aircraft on the ground and assisted in the air-to-surface action that sank the 38,500-ton Japanese hybrid battleship-carrier Ise on July 28, 1945. The sinking took place during Hawkins’ second combat cruise, aboard USS Belleau Wood(CVL 24) during operations against the Japanese mainland.
Hawkins remained in the Navy during the lean postwar years and became “slot” pilot with the Blue Angels flight demonstration team from 1948 to 1950. He returned as flight leader from 1952 to 1953. During this time, the team was flying F9F Panther jet fighters. According to the Associated Press, during the latter tour he became the first naval aviator to eject safely from an aircraft at supersonic speed.
Between the two tours, he commanded fighter squadron VF-191 “Satan’s Kittens” aboard the USS Princeton (CV 37) while fighting in Korea, also in Panthers.
Hawkins later commanded an attack squadron, a carrier air wing, and an oiler. He spent 31 years in uniform. He retired as a captain in July 1973 and settled in Pensacola, where he became a fixture at what is now called the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
“In person he was friendly and forthcoming and was always willing to talk shop,” said author Tillman. “He always took time to talk to admirers and acquaintances.” Hawkins worked for the museum’s foundation, retiring as chief of staff in 1997, but he was also a kind of unofficial guide and mentor.
Hawkins died March 21, 2004 of complications from a stroke. Eight days later, the nation buried him at Barrancas National Cemetery with full military honors, including a Blue Angels flyover. It was a loss to the Navy and the nation of a great air ace, aerobatic flying pioneer, and museum foundation official.