On Dec. 14, 1944, in the sky over the Philippines, it looked as if luck had run out for pilot Lt. Alex Vraciu, a top World War II fighter ace.
Famous for numerous exploits — including shooting down six enemy bombers in eight minutes — Vraciu caught a bullet in the oil tank of his Navy Hellcat and rapidly descended.
He disappeared for more than a month, then emerged with an enemy saber over his shoulder. After parachuting out of his plane at low altitude, he had joined a band of guerrilla fighters battling Japanese troops.
His nickname: "The Indestructible."
Vraciu, 96, the fourth-ranked naval ace in the war and a recipient of the Navy Cross, died Jan. 29 at a group home in West Sacramento. The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease, his son Robert said.
In all, Alex Vraciu (the name rhymes with "cashew") shot down 19 enemy aircraft and destroyed 21 more on the ground during the war.
His biggest day of air combat was June 19, 1944, during the battle for Saipan in the western Pacific. Flying to 25,000 feet, Vraciu spotted incoming Japanese planes in close formations.
"As they tried to separate from their groups, I was able to apply the simple process of picking them off at the edges," he told the New York Times later that year.
It was not that methodical. After shooting down one bomber, oil from Vraciu's engine spurted onto his windshield, reducing visibility. Instead of backing off, he pressed closer, scoring the next kill from 150 yards.
Pulling behind the third of six bombers he downed that day, Vraciu shot at its fuel tank, causing it to catch fire. As the bomber plunged, its tail gunner kept shooting at Vraciu.
"For a second," Vraciu said in a 2003 Contra Costa Times interview, "I almost felt sorry for that bastard."
Military aviation historian Barrett Tillman, whose books include "Hellcat Aces of World War 2," got to know Vraciu after the war. The steely aggressiveness that drove the former pilot in combat was not evident in his everyday life.
"If you ever met the man, you wouldn't pick him out as an aviator, let alone a fighter ace," Tillman said in an interview last week. "Like many of those men, he was mild-mannered and easygoing, always pleasant.
"But something happens when they strap into the cockpit and start the engine with loaded guns."
Vraciu was born Nov. 2, 1918, in East Chicago, Ind., to parents who had emigrated from Romania. He graduated from DePauw University in 1941 and considered a career in medicine, but he entered naval flight training instead.
His promise as a fighter pilot was spotted by famed aviator Edward "Butch" O'Hare, the war's first Navy ace. He mentored Vraciu and made him his wingman for several months.
O'Hare, for whom Chicago's airport is named, was killed during a 1943 nighttime mission. "That really affected my father," Robert Vraciu said. "Pearl Harbor was one thing, but it got really personal with him with Butch O'Hare. I think his aggressiveness in the war was probably tied to that as much as anything."
Alex Vraciu had a 24-year career in the Navy, retiring with the rank of commander. He then worked as a development officer for schools, including Mills College in Oakland, and was a trust officer for Wells Fargo bank for 15 years.
As far as Robert Vraciu knows, his father never piloted an aircraft after leaving the Navy. "I got the feeling that if he wasn't going to be able to fly jets, the rest of it was not rewarding," he said.
Besides Robert, who lives in Brentwood, Tenn., Vraciu is survived by daughters Carol Teague of Davis, Linda Patton of Quincy, Calif., and Marilyn Finley of Sonora, Calif.; son Marc Vraciu of Santa Barbara; 11 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. His wife, Kathryn, died in 2003.