21 September, 2021

Flown West: Eugene "Red" James. Are you supposed to read this?

Eugene "Red" James sits in his Corsair, VMF-311 sometime in August of 1945.

At some point, everyone must come to grips with the reality that life is personal.

There is a point to-it-all and there is a test.

* break break *

Years ago, “life” afforded the opportunity to learn about itself in the form of “old guys.”  Specifically, combat aviators from WWII.  

As a history geek, it’s one thing to actually meet the people who’d participated in the peaks and valleys of the human timeline.  It’s another to learn that real life is transacted, mostly, between those peaks and valleys.

In between dogfights, bombing runs and secret missions, life was common, if not mundane.  

These Old Guys, eyewitnesses to huge crescendos of humanity, mostly raised families, started businesses, walked to work, were married, divorced, hurt their children, were hurt by their children, made money, lost fortunes…. normal life. 

Life, however it is lived is a Process and Truth the result.

The process of sorting this “truth” is like the Prospector’s practice of panning for gold — swishing out the dirt and debris to leave behind the nuggets of value.  Hanging around “Old Guys,” especially those who’ve experienced much, can make someone rich. 

However, there’s that phrase, “Not all the glitters is gold.”  Conversely, “Not all gold glitters.”  In fact, sometimes the most valuable is hard, black, and so jagged, it draws blood.

Meet Eugene “Red” James. 

Red with his VMF-312 squadron on the CV, Badoeng Strait (CV-116)

As a fighter pilot, Red was a commoner of the extraordinary breed.  He was not an ace, neither did he partake in war-changing battles.  He did, however, accumulate an impressive tally of missions in WWII and the Korean War.   Years ago, I wrote a little .pdf about his life called, “Marine Red.”  It describes how he learned to master the famous fighter, the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair and wield it in mortal combat.  

You can read it by clicking here.  But not quite yet. Read on, ok?


“I just did my job,” he’d say after recalling a particular memory of this or that combat action.  Though he was highly decorated — The Distinguished Flying Cross is not handed out to just anyone — his modesty was sincere.  Utterly so.   He didn’t swagger, he didn’t brag, he didn’t boast… his participation in war was simply the result of circumstance, born at the right/wrong time with the right/wrong genes.

Later in life, he was content to poke around his small town, hands in pockets, making small talk, playing pinball and doting on his wife, Dorothy.  Bumping into him ‘at the store’ was an invitation for fifteen, twenty, thirty…minutes of friendly banter about ‘stuff.’

“See ya Red!”


And he’d putter on his way, leaving you/me the happier.

I got to meet Red by bumping into his grand daughter (in a fashion).  She was thrilled to talk about this representative of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” to such a degree, she handed out her mom’s phone number.

“You will call my mom, right?  She’ll connect you with my grandpa!  He flew Corsairs!”

“Yep. Sure.”  A little weird to have strangers extract promises and offer family phone numbers… but life is weird.  So, why not?!

Besides, Corsairs are cool.  The greatest fighter aircraft of WWII?  Quite possibly.  But that’s not important here.  Suffice it to state, I got to know the Old Guy.  I think…we became friends of a sort, at least the kind of friendship that can happen between someone who’s twice one’s age and separated by huge distance.

Red's granddaughter, Red and me.  I made a presentation at the National Naval Air Museum about Red.  If you squint, you can see a checker-nosed F4U-4 in the background; Red flew that precise airplane, BuNo 97349

But, there was a moment when I wasn’t so sure he’d even tolerate me again.  

Early on in meeting Old Guys, I developed a set of patent questions that reached beyond the cockpit and into the vague, the personal.  Socrates wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  As exiting as a Corsair is/was, once the data is known, it’s just a machine.  The pilot, however, is a life.  And there’s far more to life than war, right?

Anyway, Red’s daughter had warned me that in his age, some of his cognitive abilities  were like skips in a vinyl record.  I could always come back to a point but not to be frustrated if he couldn’t express himself so clearly.  The question, “What makes a man successful?” resulted in a poignant moment of frustration as he appeared to struggle with the answer.

As it turned out, the struggle was no fault of age but the churning through eight decades of life, sorting and distilling the answer in a way that I could understand. 

So, He told me a story.

It’s a good one!   The story involves an attack on an ocean port near Pyongyang, North Korea during the Korean War.  There’s flying into flak, taking battle damage, a fantastic crash landing and a host of circumstances that will make even the most cynical believe in the Divine.  Against all odds, Red brought his once-damaged Corsair back to the carrier, healed and whole.

I kid you not. You should hear it, but that will have to wait for another day.  Today,  it’s more important to get to the point... Red finished his story with his finger stabbing at my chest, his voice slightly raised and his blue eyes shooting icy cold condemnation, “…and that man was a coward!”  

I will never forget how that last word came out of his mouth, “…coward!”   He spat it as if it were the most repulsive filth he knew. A few seconds passed, a deep inhale, sigh and he sank back into his chair, defying me to break his stare.

Awkward?  Yes.   Uncomfortable?  Absolutely.  Riled-up old men are not at all pleasant to be around.  Still, the story he told didn’t have what I’d imagined as the traditional expression of Cowardice.

In Red’s story, no one ran away from battle.  There was no sobbing at the bottom of a war trench.  No cries for mommy.  But the word remained – a word that embodies perhaps the worst, at least for a man.  To be called a Coward is a curse of the worst order — to be known for failure, for fear, for worthlessness… “coward” is a bad word for sure.

Was this "the coward moment"?  Dunno - could be.  Does it matter?  Prolly not.  The best thing was that it was one of many over the years.  

Red remained simmering in his chair, a calm fury betrayed by a slight tremor of the hand and trembling of the jaw.

I gulped… perhaps a wiser person would have left well enough alone. But I wasn’t quite as wise as I am today.

“That’s a hell of a story.  But I have one more question.”

Red glared.

“That guy you called a coward.  He didn’t really seem like a coward to me.  A jerk, sure.  But a coward? What’s a coward to you?”

(Again, the story is pretty incredible.  You’ll have to wait for the details).

He leaned forward, placing his hands at the end of the seat as if he were going to leap onto mine and hissed, “A coward is someone who doesn’t do what he’s supposed to.”

Please.  Read that again.  

In a moment, his words blew through me like a cold South Dakota wind scours a stuffy, dank house.  Clarifying, shattering and sobering — in an instant.  There’s a reflexive action to slam the door and, “keep the cold out!”   But then, there, I knew better — Truth can be like that.  Icy, brutal.  And at times, necessary.

Of course, all the images, memories and moments of Cowardice, as expressed in my rich American life came to mind.  The failings of politicians, celebrities, business leaders, ministers of faith… friends, family and of course my own rap sheet were distilled in a simple, harsh paradigm that somehow, someway an Absolute was written onto a human’s soul and it alone was Judge and Jury.

To Red James, life came with a personal obligation and the obvious answer was to fulfill it.  Yet, any number of temptations and distractions could deflect our time.  Some small, some large but none inconsequential. 

What makes anyone successful? To Red James it was a personal calling, a fulfillment of responsibility that if avoided or ignored resulted in the condemnation of cowardice.  

“So what am I supposed to do, Red?”  Pssshhh!  Don't think for a second that I actually asked that question!   I’m so damn glad I had the common sense to keep my mouth shut — I knew damn well the answer was one afforded by the voice of conscience, the work of reason and the faith that the soul is hard wired for a thing greater than daily life.  

The answer to that question was mine and mine alone. 

Another quote came to mind, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, NASB).

I have since stopped asking that question about "Success."  It's really none of my business.

Life is so short… it’s devilishly easy to get distracted by fame, pleasure, ease. I am extraordinarily grateful to Red for the sobering touchstone that life is a mission — a personal one — that transcends the temporary.

Yesterday, September 20, 2021, Red James died.  I’m certain he’s in the presence of Grace, woven into the eternal fabric of those giants that proceeded him, resting in the sweet peace that he did what he was supposed to…and one of those ‘supposed to’s’ was direct me.

Godspeed, Red James.

I believe I'm supposed to meet you again, too. 

Red leaves the train station, bound for WWII, some time in the summer of 1942.  He was 20 years old.

See ya, Red...but not before I've done what I've supposed to do.

Red's F4U-4 Corsair.  Not my best drawing but to me, it's one of my most important.