17 May, 2009

Profile 31: 18 as flown by Eugene "Red" James

History buffs will quickly recognize that the airplane above isn't WW2 vintage. For those who aren't so buffy, the clue that this Corsair is post-1945 is the red bar on the insignia. That feature was added circa 1947. To 99% of the population, such things aren't important. I could put "WW2 fighter plane" under the bottom and most wouldn't care any more or less. But I’m a history buff and try to get the details right.

Nevertheless, "18" was flown during the Korean Conflict by "Red" James, a Marine pilot. He flew Corsairs in both WW2 and Korea. I chose to do his Korean mount because of the sheer number of reference material - in fact, “18” is on display at the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, Florida. Easy details - just look.

Last Friday, Red told of how he was "called up" again for service in 1951. Remember, the American military had just decommissioned its gigantic WW2 force when the Korean situation ignited. Plenty of combat-experienced personnel were available for the call, almost immediately. For specialized warriors like pilots, a month or two of refresher courses is much more efficient than a year or more of raising pilots from scratch.

But by the time the North Korean Communists moved South, Red James had added a new experience to his resume on top of Corsair and carrier qualifications. He was a dad with two little kids and a wife. Though Red had a lot to offer the Marines by virtue of his skill and experience, he also had a lot more to lose.

Through these interviews, I’m challenged to think about beliefs on war, justice, duty - working to distinguish the feel-good thoughts from true conviction. In the course of Friday’s conversation, we discussed a word that can fan flames in emotionally-charged circles - Cowardice. I asked Red how he defined the term and his answer was devilishly simple - "Someone who doesn't do what they're supposed to do."

The men that I’ve interviewed are no longer the pilots of 1943 or 1951. They’ve gone on, living whole new lifetimes that proportionately, make their moments in combat just blips in time. But when they share their wisdom - hardened by The Great Depression and war, softened by some of the most prosperous decades in American record - I learn fine points that I could never get on my own.

The details of history offer the courage to do what "we're supposed to do."

I am grateful for Red's example.

Update: Red's granddaughter asked me to post a picture of him from his service days, so I here it is. It's an "official" Marine Corps photo. The paper is thick and brittle but the grain is unbelievably tight. No digital pixels, no washed-out insta-matic film - this is crisp, clear life circa 1944. I swear I can smell developer chemicals on my fingers after holding the photo.

Anyway, I've never met Red's granddaughter. But a round-about set of circumstances caused her to write me a note (real paper!) to "...talk to my grandfather! He flew Corsairs!" So, I call, write, draw, send, talk, email, post...and through the glory of 21st century technology, we're connected. She'll send this post onto a bunch of people, my kids will read this after dinner, someone else, somewhere will see the censor scratches on the photo and email, "Why did they do that? And so on.

Flash, 1944 blends with today. Trite? Naw. It's freaking amazing. Ordinary people being inspired by the reality of life makes history so very present and powerful. And, if we do what we're supposed to do, we all live forever.