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Pilot fought with famed 'Black Sheep'


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POSTED: Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Retired Brig. Gen. Bruce J. Matheson, one of the last survivors of the famed World War II “;Black Sheep Squadron,”; died Jan. 29 in Kailua. He was 87.

Matheson was one of 51 pilots and airmen who were assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 214 in the Solomon Islands - headed by Maj. Greg “;Pappy”; Boyington and responsible for shooting down 94 Japanese planes from August 1943 through January 1944. The squadron, which had eight aces - each credited with at least five “;kills”; of enemy aircraft - was the basis of a 1976 television series, “;Baa Baa Black Sheep,”; starring Robert Conrad.

Frank E. Walton, author of “;Once They Were Eagles,”; said the Marine squadron of F-4 Corsairs was hastily organized in the field during World War II to meet the urgent need for another combat squadron in the South Pacific. In his book, Walton located and interviewed the 34 survivors of the 51 original Black Sheep Squadron members, including Matheson.

Matheson told Walton that “;one thing that seemed to set us apart and also drew us together was the fact that the squadron was comprised of a number of college students, all bringing their own lore from various parts of the country.”;

He was credited with three kills and two probables.

Matheson was born in Chicago and worked as a longshoreman and driver for Gordons Transports Inc. In 1940, he attended the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where he met Mary Jo Fain of Farina, Ill., whom he married in 1944.

Matheson enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942, earning his wings as a naval aviator a year later. On Aug. 7, 1943, he joined the Black Sheep, based on Vella Lavella island, west of New Georgia.

On Oct. 17, 1943, he shot down a Japanese Zero over Kahili, a major Japanese base in southern Bougainville, but was wounded during the aerial combat. He safely landed his badly damaged Corsair at Munda, northwest of Guadalcanal, according to information provided by his son.

On Jan. 3, 1944, Matheson got his last aerial victory, and also confirmed Boyington's final aerial victory before Boyington was shot down near Rabaul.

For his third combat tour, he was transferred along with 14 other Black Sheep pilots to Fighter Squadron 211 on Green Island, north of Bougainville.

Over his 30-year career in the Marine Corps, Matheson flew all-weather jet fighters in the Korean War and commanded Marine Air Group 26 in the Vietnam War, which was the largest Marine air group sent overseas, with 12 helicopter squadrons. He flew several hundred combat missions as a helicopter gunship pilot.

His military decorations include three Legions of Merit, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, more than 30 Air Medals, the Purple Heart and a number of foreign decorations.

Retiring as a colonel in 1971, he later received an honorary promotion to brigadier general because of his World War II service. After retirement in Virginia, he and his wife returned to Hawaii to spend their retirement years in Kailua in a home they had purchased in 1965.

During his years in Hawaii, Matheson worked as an instructor for the University of Southern California's graduate program, as an instructor for Chaminade University, as business manager for two years at the Hono- lulu Symphony Society, as an account executive for Industrial Data Services, and as vice president and treasurer of Windward Realty Inc. He was a longtime associate with H&R Block, beginning as a tax preparer in the Kailua office in 1980 and retiring after the 2006 tax season.

He sang for several years with the Barbershop Society, the Honolulu Symphony Chorus and the Hawaii Opera Theatre Chorus.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, sons Scott Matheson of Colorado Springs and Kerry Matheson of Hawaii, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.