Clarence Borley belongs to a club that may never gain a new member.
The Olympia veteran is one of 77 surviving military pilots who carry the title of “ace,” a recognition they earned by shooting down at least five enemy aircraft in direct combat.
No one has joined their ranks since the Vietnam War. Today, U.S. pilots rarely take part in the aerial dogfights required for another “ace” to emerge.
“The fighters are going to disappear from the skies,” said Borley, a 90-year-old retired Navy commander who shot down four Japanese planes on a single day in October 1944. “It’ll all be taken over by missiles and robotics. I just happened to be in the age bracket to catch some of it.”
Before they go, Borley and his peers are getting a big thank-you Wednesday to recognize the dangers they faced in the battles of World War II, the Korea and Vietnam.
They’re due to receive the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. At least three dozen of them are expected to attend.
“Certainly it’s quite an honor, something we wouldn’t miss,” Borley said.
The medal represents the highest honor Congress can award. Other groups of veterans that have received it include the Tuskegee Airmen, the Doolittle Raiders and the Japanese-American infantrymen who fought on the European front of World War II.
Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, played a role in bringing recognition to the aces. He was one of the original sponsors of the bill that awarded them the medal.
“These patriots are the best of the best, the cream of the crop in air-to-air combat,” he said when his bill passed last year.
Fewer than 1,500 pilots earned the title of ace between World War I and Vietnam. Six were living in Washington when Congress took up Heck’s bill — five from World War II and one from the Vietnam War.
The World War II group included Borley, Capt. Clayton Kelly Gross of Vancouver, Col. Arthur Jeffrey of Yakima, Capt. Joe McGraw of Burlington and Lt. Mike Wolf of Hansville. Jeffrey, who shot down 14 German aircraft, died in April.
At age 72, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie of Bellevue is the youngest of Washington’s aces. He joined Borley early Tuesday for a special trip to the other Washington that departed from the Museum of Flight.
“It’s obviously quite honor to be a part of that group and to receive that award,” said Ritchie, who stays in close touch with other fighter aces.
He and Borley represented strikingly different periods of air warfare.
Borley flew an F6F Hellcat with a propeller on the nose, taking off from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Essex. His first air-to-air battle took place when he was just 19. He didn’t fire a single shot that day, but remembered a chaotic scene.
“People bailing out and planes catching fire. It was really a big hairy dogfight. You’re twisting and turning and diving and climbing,” he said.
Ritchie, on the other hand, flew in a F-4 Phantom jet and fought North Vietnamese pilots flying MiG-21 jets. He took out five of his opponents in 1972.
He was the last pilot to become an ace, according to the American Fighter Aces Association. The most recent air-to-air shootouts took place in the Gulf War, when U.S. forces overwhelmed the Iraqi military.
“The technology has advanced quite a bit since the Gulf War, so there will not be another opportunity to shoot down five opponents in combat,” Ritchie said.
Borley earned his way into the ranks of aces on in a three-day span in October 1944, when he shot down four Japanese fighters in a battle near Taiwan two days after downing his first enemy plane.
He remembered the fighting took place over about 30 minutes before he was shot down, too. He survived in the Pacific Ocean, floating one day in a life vest and four more in a raft.
He didn’t have much food or water. Those supplies went overboard in a bad storm.
His fortune turned when an American submarine happened to find him. He remembered being so sunburned that his rescuers couldn’t tell if he was American or Japanese.
The submariners took part in at least two battles at sea during Borley’s time on board.
“They took very good care of me,” he said.
Borley later prepared to rejoin a Navy fighter squadron, but the war moved against Japan and the military did not send him into the air for a combat mission again.
He made a long career in the Navy, retiring as a commander in 1968 and later settling in Olympia with his wife, Lenora.
“It was a good life: You met interesting people. You had an interesting job. You went interesting places,” he said.