James William James, Pilot
17th SOS, Tan Son Nhut, 819th Attack Squadron VNAF, 1971-72
Prepared by Mike Bowman, son-in-law to Colonel James.
Place of Birth: McKenzie, Carroll County, Tennessee DOB: October 3, 1926, DOD: February 24, 1999
James William James was known as “Bill” to civilian friends and “Jim” to Air Force friends. In 1944, he enlisted in the Tennessee Home Guard in his hometown of McKenzie, Tennessee. He was called to active duty with the Army Air Corps in March 1945. He entered the On Line Training Program to become a pilot. When it became clear there were already too many pilots in the pipeline, he entered B-29 aerial gunnery training. Jim was still in gunnery training when the war ended. He and fellow gunners were assigned to reconfigure the B-29 bomber to a cargo aircraft. He was discharged in November 1945 while still a private.
In 1947, Jim attended the Aeronautical University of Chicago with plans of becoming an aeronautical engineer. When the Aviation Cadet program reopened, Jim enlisted and completed AT-6 training at Randolph Field, Texas as part of Class 49-A.
Jim was part of a number of “firsts” for the C-119. He was flying C-82s with the 20th Troop Carrier Squadron, Seward AFB, TN when the 20th TCS became the first operational unit to convert to the C-119 and Jim became one of the first to fly the new aircraft. He flew in the first C-119 formation test flights and was part of the testing that recommended adding ventral fins on the twin tail booms to improve aircraft control.
After a brief overseas assignment with the 7th Air Rescue Squadron at Wheelus AB, Tripoli, Libya, Jim returned to the C-119 as an instructor pilot for an Air Force Reserve Wing that was activated and relocated to Ardmore, Oklahoma as the 463rd Troop Carrier Wing. While with the Wing, he received the Commendation Medal for his work bringing the flight simulator program online.
From Ardmore, Jim was assigned to the 817th Troop Carrier Squadron, 483rd Troop Carrier Wing at Ashiya, Japan where he served as C-119 Aircraft Commander, Instructor Pilot, Squadron Operations Officer, Chief of Aircrew Standardization, and Wing Safety Officer. As a Captain, Jim flew C-119 Tail Number 52-5938 (The City of Addis Ababa) on an around-the-world mission that covered 19,800 miles, taking U.N. troops from Korea to their home in Ethiopia. Nearly 20 years later, aircraft 52-5938 was converted to an AC-119G Shadow gunship and deployed to the 17th Special Operations Squadron in Vietnam where Jim again flew the aircraft. In 1958, Jim’s C-119 unit converted to the C-130. Jim became an instructor for USAF and Japanese pilots. One of Jim’s students was the leading active duty Japanese ace of World War II.
In 1959, Jim was reassigned to SAC and flew the KC- 97 tanker with the 98th Bombardment Wing at Lincoln AFB, Nebraska. After completing Air Command and Staff College, he was assigned to K.I. Sawyer AFB, Michigan where he flew the new KC-135 tankers with the 46th Air Refueling Squadron. In 1967, he was assigned to SAC Headquarters, Offut AFB, NE as a War Plans Officer. While at Offut, he discovered the Air Force was looking for pilots with C-119 experience to fly the newly developed AC-119 gunships. He had about as much C-119 time as anybody in the Air Force and wanted to join the gunship program. SAC did not support Jim’s request, but through multiple applications, phone calls, and calling in favors, he was eventually released for AC-119G training.
After arriving at Tan Son Nhut AB in February 1971, Jim was quickly certified as combat ready in the AC- 119G. In May 1971, he was appointed C Flight Commander, and served as commander until the 17th SOS was deactivated and the aircraft transferred to the Vietnamese Air Force. Jim flew C Flight’s last Shadow mission on September 10, 1971. It was a night armed reconnaissance mission over Cambodia. The flight was diverted to a troops-in-contact mission to Kampong Thom, Cambodia in support of Hotel 40. Jim stayed in Vietnam as a Senior Advisor to the 819th Attack Squadron, VNAF (Black Dragons), until February 1972. From Saigon, he was assigned to duty at the Pentagon where he retired in March 1972.
During his 28 year Air Force career, Jim accumulated approximately 6,000 flying hours in numerous aircraft that included the AT-6, B-25, C-82, CG-4 glider, C-119, SA-16 (HU-16), SB-17, C-130, KC-97, U-3 (L-27), Cessna 310, U-4 (L-26), UC-64A, C-47, KC-135, T-39, AC-119G. He retired in March 1972 as a regular officer with a permanent rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
His awards and decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Air Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.
Shadow In-Flight Humor On one of his night check flights, Col. James remarked to the instructor pilot that the left engine seemed to be making an odd whining sound. The IP calmly replied that the engine was fine; he was just hearing bullets passing by. Flying gunships was a serious business.
On a daylight mission sometime later, the dry humor of gunship pilots again displayed itself. An O-2 pilot requested help with a TIC situation. The O-2 pilot instructed Shadow to turn right and follow the highway. Without missing a beat the Shadow co-pilot calmly replied that this would be impossible since the Shadow could only make left turns (the direction of the firing circle). After a long pause on the radio, the O-2 pilot could only respond, “Isn’t that dangerous?” After the fun was over, Col. James and crew came to the aid of the FAC and took care of business.
During a daylight armed reconnaissance mission on Easter Sunday 1971, Col. James was flying over the Chup Rubber Plantation when they received a call from a Cambodian ground commander for TIC support. Col. James knew that the lower he flew the more effective he could be and came in as low as possible. What he didn’t know was that there were three anti-aircraft positions around the target.
While in the firing circle, the aircraft was targeted by all three guns. A round pierced the aircraft and exploded at the back of the flight deck. There was a flash and loud bang, the airspeed dropped off dramatically, and the aircraft became hard to control. There were calls of “fire” over the intercom. Col. James was concerned the aircraft might have lost a tail boom. Just as Col. James and his co-pilot got the plane under control, everything suddenly smoothed out. The flight engineer, a senior master sergeant who had gone aft to check for battle damage, reappeared wearing a big smile. It seemed that a VNAF gunner had fallen asleep in the latrine area and was jolted awake by the sound of the exploding shell. As he jumped up, he unintentionally grabbed the emergency smoke evacuation cable activating the air scoops. The in-rushing air stirred up dust and debris in the cargo deck creating the impression of smoke from a fire. The opened air scoops created sudden and significant drag causing a sudden loss of airspeed. Even though the aircraft was hit, the inadvertent deployment of the smoke evacuation scoops gave the incident a humorous twist. Satisfied the situation was under control, Col. James returned to the target, silenced all three anti-aircraft positions and stopped the firefight on the ground. Col. James was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission.
As related by Pat Patterson, Lead Gunner In May 1971 while actively engaging a target in Cambodia, an engine failed on Col. Jame’s aircraft thus causing insufficient power to maintain altitude. The navigator reported the nearest emergency field was Phnom Penh, about 30 minutes away. The flight engineer quickly determined the aircraft could remain airborne only 15 minutes at the present rate of descent. Col. James instructed the gunners and IO to jettison any extra weight. They replied that they were already dumping ammo at that moment. Ten minutes later, with all excess weight jettisoned, the flight engineer declared that at their present rate of descent they would contact earth in about 25 minutes. As they approached Phnom Penh, Col. James told the crew that if he felt that he couldn’t make the landing when they reached minimum bailout altitude, he would sound the bailout alarm and anyone who didn’t beat him out of the aircraft would automatically become aircraft commander. Col. James made a one engine landing without incident. That night the Shadow crewmembers were guests of Cambodian Army Col. Olm (call sign, Hotel KPT or Hotel 303).
The Cost of Battle
There were other missions that Col. James talked less and less about over time. On one, the enemy was concentrated under the jungle canopy on a point of land that jutted into the confluence of two rivers. The fire from the Shadow was so devastating and the size of the enemy force so great that the water in the river actually began to flow red. This story was only told once or twice shortly after his return in 1972. The job needed to be done and many friendly lives were saved, but the image of the water bothered him a great deal.