MILTON — Eugene “Red” James sat in a comfortable corner chair of his living room watching everyone in the room not saying a word. When everyone had settled the 97-year-old Marine fighter pilot belts out a song from his Korean War days. It is sung to the tune of “On Top Of Old Smokey.”
“Oh he’s singing that song again,” his daughter Diann VanGrowski said.
She then asked him to recite “The Corsair” poem as she passed a copy of the song and poem to those in the room.
It was an unexpected surprise from the retired major because recent medical issues had caused memory lapses and speech problems. However, he did not miss a word or beat and there was a noticeable gleam in his blue eyes.
James flew the F4U-1 and F4U-4 Corsairs in 36 combat missions in World War II, along with another 101 combat missions aboard the VMF-311 and VMA-312 during the Korean War. James’ pilot logbook shows he had flown the F4U-4 Corsair BuNo 97349, now on display at the Naval Aviation Museum, on six missions.
James was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a military decoration awarded to any U.S. Armed Forces member who distinguishes themselves in support of operations by heroism or extraordinary achievement while in an aerial flight.
On Feb. 24, 1953, a then Capt. James participated in the rescue of a downed Marine aviator who was surrounded and being fired upon by enemy troops deep in hostile territory. James conducted a series of daring low-level strafing assaults, intentionally drawing heavy enemy fire away from the downed pilot.
Although his corsair was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire, James continued to maneuver his stricken aircraft at minimum altitude suppressing enemy ground fire directed at the downed pilot. James provided cover fire keeping enemy troops from advancing and allowing a helicopter rescue of the downed pilot less than two hours after he had crash-landed. The DFC citation goes on to say that James was greatly responsible for saving a fellow Marine’s life and inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy.
James remained quiet as his daughter spoke on his behalf. However, when she asked him about a specific story, he would let out a mischievous laugh, adjust his sitting position and start using his hands to describe how he flew his Corsair.
James received a Purple Heart medal when his canopy was shot out during a mission, causing shattered pieces of glass to embed in his face and eyes.
“I didn’t need a Purple Heart for that,” James said as he described the flight.
James was flying almost blind as he returned to the carrier. The ship wanted him to land first into a barrier net due to his reduced vision. James refused and told the carrier he would be the last to land.
James figured if he crashed while trying to land first he would endanger and delay the landings of the guys behind him. He flew in a holding pattern until everyone had landed. James then executed a controlled crash landing into the barrier net.
James trained in Pensacola and NAS Whiting Field before receiving his wings. According to his daughter he was in the first graduating class at Whiting Field in 1943.
James was born in Brewton, Alabama, in 1922. At one point was an instructor pilot at NAS Whiting Field. He left the Marine Corps and flying in July 1959 after 14 years of service as an active duty and reservist member.
James met his wife Dorothy at a USO dance in Detroit, Michigan, where he was training to fly the Corsair. They were married on Jan. 25, 1947.
They settled in Milton and had six children, Dick, Diann, Bobby, Ralph, Randy, and Michael. James started James Construction company and never piloted another aircraft.
Dorothy was a devout Catholic and active member of the community and her church. She was at the ground-breaking of the first Catholic church of Milton, St Rose of Lima. The church was built by her husband’s construction company.
Dorothy Mildred James died at home peacefully in her sleep on Aug. 23, 2019, from complications following a stroke at 96 years old. Her husband of 73 years was by her side.