MARION -- Robert W. Duncan, 92, a lifelong resident of Marion, except for the time he served in the U.S. Navy, passed away peacefully with his family by his side at 10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, at his home.
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He was born Dec. 20, 1920, in Marion, the son of Absalom Wesley and Nellie Mae (Drake) Duncan.
Robert attended school in Marion and was a graduate of Marion High School. After graduation, he continued his education by attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for three years until he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the time of World War II, thus beginning a long 26-year military career. He had no idea that his exploits as a World War II flying ace would be documented in history books for years to come.
At age 21, he joined the U.S. Navy and became one of the original members of the "Fighting Five" of the USS Yorktown (CV-10) called "The Fighting Lady."
Duncan and other members of his squadron flew the brand-new F6F Grumman Hellcat fighter planes from the deck of the ship. On Aug. 31, 1943, Duncan saw his first combat at Marcus Island, a small, triangle-shaped atoll less than 1,000 miles from Tokyo.
"We caught them asleep on the ground," Duncan said. "They didn't get any planes in the air, but those guys on the ground were good gunners. They put a hole right in my left wing, a foot or so up from the aircraft."
That was the first time anyone had shot at Duncan, much less hit him. And, although he often came back from later missions with damage to his plane, it was a new experience for him at the time.
Duncan saw his first aerial combat at Wake Island, where the young pilot launched in a driving rain, cutting visibility down to almost nothing.
"You could hardly see the plane you were flying wing on," Duncan said.
The planes popped out of the squall line into a cloudy sky, and Duncan immediately spotted a Japanese Zero. After the fierce battle with his two kills, Duncan was the first pilot flying from the Yorktown to down an enemy plane, a claim he can back up with a bottle of Old Crow, a gift from the squadron's commanding officer that Duncan never opened. He also was the first pilot ever to shoot down an enemy plane with the F6F Grumman Hellcat fighter plane.
It would be during a large battle at Truk Island, called the "Japanese Pearl Harbor," that Duncan would earn for himself the right to an-other claim, that of "Fighter Ace." Duncan shot down two more Zeros that day and received the Navy's highest honor, the Navy Cross, for, in the words of Admiral C. W. Nimitz, "extraordinary heroism … skilled airmanship, courage and gallant devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming fighter opposition."
Duncan continued to serve in the U.S. Navy, eventually downing two more planes, for a total of seven, and earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight Air Medals and various others medals. One of his hits was taking out Warrant Officer Toshiyuki Sueda, a Japanese ace who had shot down nine American planes.
In total, Duncan had seven kills during air-to-air combat on his tour in the Pacific and destroyed another six enemy aircraft on the ground. He also took out one Japanese ship. That record earned him the distinction of one of the first flying aces in the war. To be desig-nated an ace, a pilot had to shoot down at least five aircraft.
Duncan is credited with flying more than 100 missions during World War II and the Korean War.
In between World War II and the Korean War, Robert enrolled for one year at Washington University's Law School of St. Louis.
He ended his 26-year military career in 1966, being honorably discharged with the rank of naval captain. He also was featured in 2007 by having a part in the History Channel's feature series, "Dogfights," about World War II fighter pilots.
Robert was united in marriage to Evelyn Russell on March 7, 1943, in Baton Rouge, La., and together they shared more than 70 years of marriage.
After his retirement from the military, he became a real estate broker with Rodd Realty of Marion for several years. He had been a longtime member of First Baptist Church of Marion.
Robert served as chairman of Williamson County Regional Airport Board for 21 years, president of Illinois Regional Airport Association and vice president of Central Technology Inc. of Herrin. He also was a member of Marion Elks Lodge BPOE No. 800, a 32nd degree Mason and a lifetime member of Marion VFW Heyde-Pillow Post 1301.
In 2001, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Marion Area Chamber of Commerce at the annual dinner.
Survivors include his wife, Evelyn Duncan of Marion; daughter and son-in-law, Janice L. and Scott Magruder of Hattiesburg, Miss.; son, Steven L. Duncan of Marion; grandson, David Magruder and wife, Crystal, of Florence, Ala.; granddaughter, Heather Townsend and husband, Brian, of Hattiesburg, Miss.; two great-granddaughters, Devon Hayley Magruder and Madalynn Grace Magruder; other extended family; and many friends.
He was preceded in death by his parents; and brother, Carl Duncan.
Services will be at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, in Wilson-McReynolds Funeral Home, 900 N. Court St., in Marion with Dr. Bob Dickerson presiding. Interment will be in Barham Cemetery in Marion. Military honors will be accorded at the gravesite by members of Heyde-Pillow VFW Post 1301, American Legion Post 147 and Illinois National Guard Flag Detail, all of Marion. Visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednes-day, Oct. 16, at the funeral home.
For those who prefer, memorial contributions may be made to Disabled American Veterans of Marion. Memorial contribution envelopes will be available at the funeral home or may be mailed in care of Wilson-McReynolds Funeral Home, P.O. Box 370, Marion, IL 62959.
For additional information, or to leave an online condolence of memory or light a candle in memory, visit www.wilsonmcreynolds.com.
Published in The Southern Illinoisan from Oct. 14 to Oct. 15, 2013
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