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NEWS | Vol. 12, No. 3, January 21, 2010
(Healthcare Transformed)

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A Different Plane, A Different Man

by Sean Boone

Veteran Navy Corsair Pilot Defines Generation

The mission was almost complete.  The Corsair was now at 1,500 feet and maintaining a speed of 160 knots. There was one thing left to do--let "Tiny Tim" fly.

But this would prove to be a different mission for Eugene "Red" James; one that the former Navy bomber pilot would remember forever.

"We were diving in North Korea, just about ready to pull out and they blew out the windshield," James recalls. "I had glass all stuck in my face and when I got back to base I was squinting--I didn't want to move my eye."

Against his wishes, James would later receive the prestigious Purple Heart for that flight, one of several medals--including the Distinguished Flying Cross and Combat Air Medal with Gold Stars--he would receive in his 136 combat missions flown in WWII and the Korean War.

"When I got back to base I was looking around seeing Marines pull their dead buddies (into the infirmary)," he recalls. "I told them not to (award the Purple Heart) but they did anyway."

James is among an elite group of veterans who flew the F4U Corsair on missions in Okinawa and Korea, and were noted with checkerboard stripes on the nose of the planes they flew.

"The checkerboard nose signifies Red was part of VMFA-312, which were the 'Checkerboarders,' a rather prestigious group in World War II and the Korean War," says military historian and aviation artist John Mollison. "A lot of the Navy and Marine planes don't have the art on the nose like the Air Force. But when they do, it's usually a big deal."

On Jan. 16, James and Mollison spoke at the National Naval Aviation Museum as part its Discovery Saturday series, highlighting the military's use of the Corsair.

The museum has two original Corsair aircrafts on display, a F4U-1 and a F4U-4. The F4U-4 was actually flown by James in combat.

"What are the odds?" says the veteran, smiling. "They made 12,571 Corsairs and what are the odds that I would fly the one (in the museum)?"

The F4U-1 was flown primarily in WW2 and was the original Corsair model deputed in 1942. The British Royal Navy later upgraded its stability for aircraft landing. The F4U-4 had 400 more horsepower than its processor, and was able to hold much heavier bombing payloads.

A DIFFERENT TIME

As a child, Mollison used to build model airplanes with his father at their home in South Dakota. Fascinated with their design, he began drawing to compensate for not being allowed to play with them.

"My dad would never let me play with the models, but he let me have the box," the 43-year-old says with a laugh. "I was so captivated with the planes and couldn't stop drawing them."

But it wasn't till years later as an adult was he able to correlate his passion as an artist with the importance of history and values.

"When I was in the restaurant business I worked my way up as a person with authority, but I quickly realized I needed leadership and command," Mollison says. "At the time I was able to meet a World War II hero and in the course of conversation I asked, 'how do you manage people?'"

"This was 10 years ago," he adds. "Since then I've been selling prints. Part of it is drawingpart of it is the history and part of it is understanding a unique generation's value system."

Mollison says he first came in contact with James after the veteran's granddaughter sent him a letter that said he needed to interview her grandfather.

"I was so taken that a young woman would write a letter," he says. "I had no shortage of veterans to talk to. I didn't need another Corsair pilot, but when I talked to Jenna and found out what kind of man he was, I was grateful for her putting me in touch with him.

"I think my generation has grown up fast--grown up spoiled and I think we've made our children like that. What we need to do is recognize that our nation is our culture. Right now we're in a mode of self-indulgence."

A LASTING IMPRINT

Wearing a sweatshirt and hat with prints of the aircraft he flew for more than 10 years, James stands near the upstairs railing of the Naval Museum, visualizing the six hour missions he flew more than 50 years ago.

"We use to go into Japan with belly tanks," he says. "When we bombed Okinawa they put two tanks (on the F4U-1) that would carry 300 gallons a piece. We'd spend about 15 minutes on the mission and the rest of the time flying there and back."

The 87-year-old, who now lives in Milton, says his greatest achievement as a pilot was just making it back to safety after each mission without ever losing his aircraft--particularly when trying to land on the relatively short USS Badoeng Strait during WWII.

"The swells might be 15-20 feet high in the Yellow Sea," says James. "The carrier was short, maybe 580 feet or so. As it would go up and down--now you're not perpendicular to it. One time I came in and had the left wheel (go off main runway) and I had to jump out and use the catapult."

But James insists he would never worry about his safety while in the air with the plane he fell in love with, noting that the plane was built so well.

"That aircraft was so good that I had to worry about other things. Of course you had to respect it. There was a poem written in all of the (Corsairs) dash that I'd look at before I flew:

'The Corsair is a powerful gal. She has 2,000 horses beneath her gown, and she will take you into the blue. But if you don't watch outshe will kill you.'"

sean@inweekly.net