One of first Americans to fight in WWII was dwarf pilot with 500 parachute jumps

"Three American pilots of No 71 (Eagle) Squadron RAF, P/O's A Mamedoff [ Thompson, Connecticut ], V C 'Shorty' Keough [ Brooklyn, New York ] and G Tobin [ Los Angeles ], show how their new squadron badge will look on Keogh's uniform at Church Fenton, Yorkshire. Mamedoff was formerly a stunt pilot in an air circus. Keough was a professional parachutist with 480 drops at the time this photograph was taken. Tobin was a commercial pilot who also did film work in Los Angeles." IWM Photo - CH 1442.

When it comes to the World War II, the United States was a relative latecomer. While the Second World War lasted from 1939 to 1945, the war-weary and isolationist USA sat out the first part of the game in neutrality, they sent countless supplies to their allies in the form of merchant fleets.

That said, not all Americans sat it out. Some were determined to take the fight to the enemy, even if their method of doing so was sketchy- or even outright illegal. Despite the risks involved, many of these men would serve during one of Great Britain’s most significant historical events: The Battle of Britain.

Enter the Royal Air Force’s 71st and 121st Squadrons, better known as the “Eagle Squadrons.” Comprised mostly of Americans who smuggled themselves overseas, renounced their US citizenship or outright lied about their nationality (often posing as Canadians), the Eagle Squadrons had a wide array of thrill-seekers, professional stunt pilots, an Olympic bobsled champion, former military men and even a hard-fighting dwarf who had over 500 parachute jumps under his belt.

Some were experienced aviators, others, not so much. However, it wasn’t long before they found themselves behind the controls of Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires, taking to the skies against the German Luftwaffe.

One such pilot was Vernon Charles Keogh, whose short 4’10 stature was overshadowed by his raw courage. Legally considered a dwarf by today’s standards, “Shorty” Keogh was born in Brooklyn and had earned his private pilot’s license at a relatively young age.

Back in the states, Shorty performed in airshows and was a professional parachutist at a time when parachutes were still a relatively new thing. During his time as a performer, he logged over five-hundred jumps.

Wanting more excitement in his life, Shorty made his way over to Europe and joined the French Air Force just as the Battle of France was coming to a less-than-favorable end for the free world. Much like many Allied forces at the time, Shorty managed to limp to England and link up with the British, joining the Royal Air Force in 1940.

The shortest man in the RAF, he had to use two seat cushions just to see out of his Supermarine Spitfire’s cockpit. His crewmates would often get a laugh during scramble exercises, watching Shorty race towards his plane on tiny legs, a cushion under each arm.

However, Shorty was a fighter. Flying several missions during the climax of the Battle of Britain, he even shared a kill, in which a German Do 17 bomber was shot out of the sky.

Shorty was one of the first three Americans in Eagle Squadron’s 71st, which was the first all-American RAF squadron in the organization’s history, complete with an eagle emblem that was personally given the nod by Winston Churchill himself.

By January of 1941, the Eagles were ready to soar as an organized and ready unit. While many of the pilots had seen combat already, some were only just now getting their first taste of battle. Shorty was flying in close formation at 20,000 feet with two of his fellow Eagles when two of them collided, causing pilot Philip Leckrone’s plane to spiral downward.

“Bail out, Bail out!” Shorty screamed into his microphone as he followed Leckrone’s stricken plane.

Leckrone never got out and was killed on impact, the first fatality in 71 Squadron. According to the squadron’s logbook, Leckrone had joined the RAF ““for the highest of motives- not for the glamour, if any, or the thrills, but to defend our way of life.”

Casualties would continue to mount for the Eagles. Only a month and four days after Leckrone was killed, the 29-year-old Shorty took off to chase down an He 111 bomber and never came back. During the flight, he was last seen spinning into the sea, likely a victim of disorientation or oxygen system failure. While he was initially considered missing, a Coast Guard unit found a telltale sign of his demise in the English Channel.

It was a pair of tiny flying boots, bobbing amongst the wreckage of his plane.

“Nobody but little Shorty could wear such small boots,” 71 Squadron’s record book said. “There can be little doubt that Shorty’s plane dived into the sea at great speed and that he was killed instantly.”

The Eagles would continue flying (and dying), even without their tiny wonder. In fact, by the time the US Army Air Force absorbed the Eagle Squadrons in 1942 (leading to those awesome Spitfires with US markings), the Eagle Squadron was something of a legend, claiming over 1,000 enemy aircraft. By the end of the war, only one member of the original Eagle Squadron -who had flown during the Battle of Britain- was still alive.

Winston Churchill once said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” While history often forgets the foreign-born pilots who faced down the enemy when their home countries would -or could- not, it was a noble few who risked everything to do the right thing that helped turn the tide of a war.

Verily, many Americans and Brits alike overlook the fact that while the Brits technically fought alone in the deadly summer of 1940, they were well-bolstered by Americans and many others. In fact, over 1/4 of the 500+ foreign pilots who defended Britain never returned.

That said, the sacrifices of foreign pilots -including the Eagle Squadron- are not forgotten. If one were to take a July 4th stroll in Sussex’s Boxgrove graveyard, one might often find fresh flowers on the graves of American Olympic bobsled champion and Pilot Officer Billy Fiske, “The King of Speed” who was the first American to die in the Battle of Britain and is usually identifiable by a small American flag and a simple, albeit poignant epitaph:

“He died for England.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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