Colonel James Jabara: American Hero
This monument at the airport’s south entrance honors Colonel Jabara, who distinguished himself in aerial combat during World War II, the Korean War and, later, in Vietnam. Inside our facility you can view a wall commemorating the world’s first jet ace, now the airport’s namesake.
Jabara’s Hero’s Welcome
Wichita turned out in troves for its returning son, mounting one of the best-attended parades in the city’s history. National TV and radio covered the event and crowds thronged his father’s grocery store on Murdock Street for days.
- Distinguished Service Cross, May 22, 1951
- Silver Star, Jun. 7, 1951
- Silver Star, Oak Leaf Cluster, Sept. 10, 1953
- Distinguished Flying Cross, Nov. 22, 1944
- DFC Oak Leaf Cluster, May 29, 1945
- DFC Oak Leaf Cluster, April 30, 1951
- DFC Oak Leaf Cluster, June 4, 1951
- DFC Oak Leaf Cluster, May 26, 1953
- DFC Oak Leaf Cluster, June 10, 1953
- DFC Oak Leaf Cluster, June 16, 1953
- Air Medal May 29, 1944 (24 Oak Leaf Clusters)
- Distinguished Flying Cross, British, Dec. 1, 1955
Jabara stood out among his group of fighter pilots almost as much as if he really had been a Knight of yore on a quest for the grail. Veteran of over 100 European missions flown in a P-51 before he was twenty, he had a very hot start in Korea when in weeks he downed four MiGs, only one short of the total necessary to become an ‘ace’. But instead of resting on an accomplishment in advance of any other pilot in the war, Jabara was worried about a ‘dry spell’ that had lasted almost a month.
“He’s a ‘Hot-Shot Charlie’ type,” his commanding officer remembered. “He sang the loudest in the club, made more noise than the others, dressed on the extreme side for the military – those sorts of things.” But however disturbing he might be at times to military regimen on the ground, Jabara’s cocky aggressiveness and predictable courage were unquestioned assets in the air war. Therefore when the Wichita pilot had two ‘kills’ Lt. Col. Meyer had singled him out in response to Major General Earle Partridge’s request to choose someone with the characteristics to become a jet ace: “I decided on Jabara as the most likely candidate. Anything that was a milk run, he didn’t go, and anything up on the Yalu, he did go and we saw that he was in the flight-leader position, which was usually the best.”
The mission of May 20, 1951 was no milk run. About five p.m. two flights of Sabres, twenty-eight planes, engaged fifty MiGs near Sinuiju in northwest Korea. Because the Sabres dropped their wing tanks when entering battle to achieve better aerodynamics, fuel limitations meant battles seldom lasted over ten minutes. Jabara’s time was busy.
His initial problem was that one of his wing tanks failed to release, requiring him to fly with both hands on the stick. The Air Force rule was that in such a situation a pilot was to disengage and return to base. Jabara instead attacked a group of three MiGs and got on the tail of one of them. No evasive maneuver would shake the American pilot and the MiG eventually took three machine-gun bursts in the fuselage and wing. The enemy plane did two violent snap rolls, began to smoke, then to belch flames and fell into an uncontrolled spin. Jabara and his wing man saw the pilot bail out and went into a tight 360 degree turn to follow the plane all the way down to confirm its destruction. “All I could see of him was a whirl of fire,” said Jabara. “I had to break off then because there was another MiG on my tail.” With no time to think about having become America’s first jet ace, Jabara accelerated his airplane back into the battle above him. But as he reached 20,000 feet, he noticed a difficulty perhaps more serious than the drag of his wing tank. His companion had gotten diverted by enemy fire and was no longer with him. Fighting in pairs was essential in jet fighter battles, as the speed and g-forces in aerial maneuver were so great that the attacker had to concentrate fully on the target and rely on the wing man to cover him and warn of other planes approaching. The rule was that if you were separated from your wing man you disengaged and returned to base. Jabara instead attacked another group of MiGs.
The engagement seemed successful: a MiG, hit in the wings and tail section, flamed out and spiraled to the left. Jabara cut back power, opened his speed brakes and followed the airplane down to 6,500 feet to make sure it hit the ground. But things were not as smooth as they seemed. “I was following this MiG down,” Jabara said later, “when all of a sudden I heard a noise that sounded like a popcorn machine right in my cockpit. I looked back and saw two MiGs firing at me, and I could see black puffs from their cannon exploding all around me. I broke down to the left, closed my speed brakes and opened my power. For about two minutes we went round and round, they shooting at me while I tried my best to get away. I didn’t dare break out because I would have been too good a target.”
At the point of ultimate discouragement, Jabara heard two of his friends, Morris Pitts and Gene Holley, talking on their radios about a lone F-86 under attack. Although his voice was strained due to the g-forces of his tight turn, ‘Jabby’’ Jabara was able to identify himself and to say that he knew ‘only too dammed well’ that there was a lone F-86 being shot at. As a courtesy Pitts said “Call me if you need some help.” And Jabara, low on fuel and hotly pursued, allowed that he could use some. On seeing the two approaching Sabres the MiG wing man fled, but the one pursuing Jabara, intent on his sights, remained. The four planes flew of some minutes, Holley firing at the MiG, Pitts protecting Holley, the MiG firing at Jabara and Jabara trying to avoid fire from two sources. At last the MiG broke off and the Sabre group, low on fuel, turned south and landed just at dusk.
There was a party that evening at Kimpo. Jabara drank his usual large quantity of beer with the usual minimal obvious effects, smoked a number of cigars and used his hands in characteristic fashion to show the battle while he talked about it. He did not neglect in the excitement to warn the other pilots against becoming ‘sitting ducks’ as he had by trying to attack without a wing man, but it was clear that at least for that day he himself had felt invincible.
It was a special day for James Jabara, to be sure, the day he became America’s first jet ace. He was hailed at the time and since as the world’s first jet ace. Technically account must be taken of German aces piloting the Messerschmitt 262 jet at the end of World War II, but it should be remembered that the planes they shot down were not also jets.
Whatever titles are appropriate, however, what is remarkable is that for Jabara May 20, 1951 wasn’t a terribly unusual day. It was his sixty-third Korean mission of an eventual 163: he was to have two other days when he was to down two planes, and would become in that war a triple ace. He won a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest decoration, on May 20, 1951, but he was to add a silver star and oak leaf cluster to that for repeat performances. He earned a stateside leave for a publicity tour which he did not want, and media attention that had not been the object of his quest. He wanted to return to his canopied cockpit and carry on his business as soon as his back muscles recovered from the strain of in-flight maneuvers. “I can hardly sit down,” he told reporters who met him in Japan on his way home to Wichita, “my fanny is so sore.” They gave him a press biography form then containing the question, “Anything that might be of news interest?” Jabara wrote, “None.”
The epithet “hero” slips easily off the tongue, a welcome link with imagined glory, however much disillusion and overuse may seem to have trivialized it. Heroism is an ill-defined concept: there is as much emotion as intellect in it. Yet even among those most ready to debunk the long tradition of heroes and hero-worship as mere sentiment there remains a feeling that there has been and can yet be a form of human greatness focused upon specific active qualities in such a way as to deserve its own name. We are often disappointed by “heroes,” so-called. Some are too limited, others not limited enough to make that strong appeal to mass aspiration – that “I might one day be so” – that is fundamental to the hero. Superman, for example, is a compelling artifice, but is the stuff of fantasy, not destiny. Jabara, himself the subject of an adventure comic-book, was by contrast a mix of the believable and the seeming unbelievable perfectly balanced to elicit both awe, and, more important, imitation.
He had physical limits. His eyesight in high school was poor enough to require glasses, and he improved it to flying standard only by eating twenty carrots a day for a considerable time. His 5’5″ frame was wiry, but not obviously intimidating. He smoked and drank too much, wondered and hurt too much to be a god or demi-god in a Puritan heaven.
Still his ‘determined gaze’ could wilt, his bearing could inspire, and when ensconced in his Sabrejet, he controlled, by technological extension, certifiable superhuman powers. Also, like the outsized superheroes of fiction, he believed in the triumph of right over evil and performed remarkable deeds in his charmed life to insure that victory. His documented accomplishments demonstrated that, however controversial certain military actions may have become in recent years, and however antique the values of a man like Jabara may appear to some, the crisis of battle yet conjures up in the Midwestern countryside warriors of monumental stature, who cannot adequately be described to posterity as anything other than American heroes.
The element making up a hero are subtle, variable and probably legion. In Jabara’s case, several qualities undeniably heroic may be categorized under three broad, simple heads: courage, discipline, emotion.
Heroic courage is an active kind, usually associated with physical danger from an external source that is perceived as powerful, malign, but, with great effort, defeatable. If any of these elements is missing, as in the case of a patient bearing up against terminal cancer, we may think of courage, but not of heroism. War provides many opportunities for the exercise of heroic courage: air war creates added speed and intensity; and air war was James Jabara’s chosen situation.
Jabara was ‘dauntless’ in his courage, that is he did not show the doubt, confusion, changes of heart and recriminations that are typical of the ambiguous meetings of most people and most situations. “Although low on fuel,” read his DSC citation in 1951, “with one tank still on, and outnumbered six to one, Capt. Jabara dauntlessly flew into their midst, exposing himself to their fire in order to divert them from their objective.”
It was there in World War II when “the Ceegar Kid,” flying with the Pied Piper squadron, destroyed nine planes. Especially it showed one day when his and a German plane attacked so vigorously that they collided in the air, leaving the pilots to float to the ground for a handshake in recognition of each other’s courage.
It was there when, offered stateside duty for the duration of the Korean War after becoming the first jet ace, Jabara pressured his superiors to return to combat. He had, he said, flown only 63 missions of his 100 mission tour and was uncomfortable at a desk.
It was there when there was no war and he trained pilots and tested untried airplanes in dangerous maneuvers at high speeds. Once in 1959 a reporter rode with him to Mach 2.1 in an F-104. “Couple of things I probably ought to tell you,” Jabara said as the pair taxied.
The 104’s a noisy little bugger. Might scare you if you weren’t expecting it. She makes some awful funny sounds at times.
What sounds, Colonel?
Sirens, rivet hammers, dismal thuds. There’s one that shake up the students. It’s a sound like some poor guy being tortured to death in the back end some place. But don’t worry. The sounds are harmless.
Knowing that a piece of dirt on the rotor could disintegrate the airplane at 1,400 m.p.h. the reporter was not unanxious: Jabara was.
And the dauntlessness was still there when in 1966, at forty-three years of age, he flew a combat mission in Viet Nam while delivering an airplane and then got himself assigned to a regular 100 mission tour which only his death in an auto accident prevented, or could have prevented.
Preparation for moments of courage involves discipline. It is a hallmark of genius, heroism, athletic skill, and most things that separate some people from the crowd, that the activity in which the individual specialized is made to appear easy and the practitioner of the art often has an aura of insouciance. But the deed is not really easy, nor the doer indifferent. The carefree minstrel has spent hours in private practicing scales on his lute, and the jet ace has accepted physical and mental discipline that narrows the range of life greatly while at the same time intensifying the experience of it.
Jabara started early on discipline. He learned about hard work at his father’s grocery store beginning at age eight. He learned in childhood too that children of Lebanese immigrants had to prove themselves unequivocally (or at least thought they did). He excelled as a boy in the discipline of earning Boy Scout badges, and in fact was able to enter officer’s school for flyers at seventeen without a college degree only because he had achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. He dreamed to be sure, but often on a single theme – flying. He saw Errol Flynn in Dawn Patrol over and over, but also read repeatedly Baron von Richtoven’s authentic memoirs The Red Knight of Germany. He had the clear intention to act upon his dreams, and a willingness to undergo the necessary sacrifices.
Later the discipline became more dramatic, and was both mental and physical. Jabara always described air combat as a business: “It’s what we are trained for – just like you might be trained for any other business.” He told his pilot students that the three A’s of aerial combat were air discipline, aggressiveness and aerial gunnery. He put the emphasis on extreme, single-minded discipline, and washed out of the fighter program on those grounds many whom he thought could make outstanding contributions in other branches of the service. Those who flew with him remember him as a perfectionist, whose demonstration target shooting was used for years by the Air Force as a sample of perfect aerial gunnery.
The demands of air combat increased with the introduction of jets. Speaking of the comparison between his experience in Korea and in World War II, Jabara noted that the best Korean pilots tended to be older men (this was even more so in Viet Nam) in whom discipline and savvy had developed alongside energy and enthusiasm. “It keeps you tense, more alert,” he said. “The longest jet fight I was in lasted about 10 minutes . . . But that’s extraordinary. Most of the time it’s two minutes. A head-on pass lasts about two, three seconds. The physical requirements alone could be immense. Once in Korea, Jabara was forced into a dive in which his body was subjected to a nine-g force. He blacked out briefly, but his superb physical conditioning brought him back in time to pull up. He smoked cigars be he also ran and did calisthenics. He drank, but followed a strict rule of ‘ten hours between the bottle and the throttle.’ All fighter pilots needed discipline: the heroes and the aces required a special measure.
Jabara’s well-known humility, an essential in a hero’s image, can be interpreted as an aspect of his discipline. It also, though to say so seems a paradox at first, grew with his self-confidence. Those who knew him during his first days in Korea noticed rapid maturing of the man as he proved what he was early desperate to prove, and increasing quietness as his accomplishments began to speak loudly enough for themselves. Humility for him was a way of achieving the perspective necessary to move on to further achievement. Adulation was dangerous in that wallowing there distracted him from his practiced discipline.
Jabara did allow himself one great moment in the spotlight after his ‘first jet ace’ accomplishment and at the insistence of the Air Force. On that occasion, the Jabara grocery on Murdock Street in Wichita was thronged with people for days, both he and his father were on local and national radio and television, and Wichita mounted for her returning son one of the best-attended parades in the city’s history. The Lebanese-American hero was even sent on a good-will tour of his father’s homeland and gave s speech in the little town of Merjayoun in Judeiat where John Jabara was born. Films of his plane in Korea were on every movie newsreel, and he had offers to spend a week in Hollywood and a week in South America all expenses paid. The Cigar Institute of America sent him a case of stogies, his wife Nina received promotional packages with cigarette lighters and perfume, there was s song (“That Jabara Bird”) written about him, and a ritual rewarding of his Distinguished Service Cross at a baseball game in Boston.
The moment, however, passed and Jabara went back to the job he was born for. He would not allow another Wichita celebration when he became a triple ace, he sneaked into his home town on leave out of uniform to avoid reporters, and he avoided the temptation to speak much to the press on questions of broader policy celebrities are often perceived to be experts. When asked in San Francisco about the frustrations of limited war in Korea and the Manchurian sanctuary, Jabara said: “I never think about it. It’s none of my business. They got smart guys to figure out things like that. I’m just a G.I. fighter pilot.” Humility, yes: discipline too.
Probably most important in the character of Jabara was a certain emotional makeup. Emotion is a combination of psychology and experience that motivates individuals to disciplined lives, and makes acts of courage seem meaningful.
Jabara’s emotions, like most things about him, were intense, volatile and vast. Speaking of the details of downing his seventh Korean MiG, and of how the nose section caught fire, parts of the fuselage stripped off and the pilot bailed out, Jabara said parenthetically: “It was a beautiful sight . . . It was very quick — it was a pleasure.” John Jabara when told that his son had been assigned to stateside duty after his hero’s return from Korea, exhibited an understanding of his son’s emotions greater than when he had tried in 1942 to entice him into the grocery business. “Jimmy won’t like that,” the elder Jabara exclaimed. “He likes lots of excitement.”
The primary vehicle around which James Jabara organized his emotions was patriotism. When asked by Parade magazine why he wanted to return to danger in Korea, he dismissed several of the reasons others had suggested. He was not, he said, a ‘killer by instinct.’ “I have the same instincts as any of the kids back in Muskogee, Oklahoma where I was born. I was brought up as the grocer’s son, Jimmy, like my two brothers.” He did not like war. He had had plenty of revenge for his dead buddies, plenty of promotions and plenty of decorations for a lifetime. It was not because he could not settle down: “If I didn’t think I could come back to my family I wouldn’t leave.” Why then? Because he was a patriot, a true believer:
I don’t want to sound corny, or like a hero, or a flag-waver, or warmonger. But I think there is something we have to fight back at, or it will destroy us. It’s something that used to fly Messerschmitts over Europe, and flies MiGs over Korea. Call it Fascism, Nazism or Communism, its something that can’t live with freedom. My children, and your children, will not be allowed to grow up in peace if it grows stronger . . . I just want to clobber a few more MiGs in Korea – before they clobber all of us – in Wichita.
Jabara turned down job offer from aircraft firms at many times his Air Force salary, and once called his own family “imperialists” because they concentrated on their business instead of volunteering for military duty. It was patriotism that drove him hardest.
That his emotion was so concentrated in patriotism doubtless had much to do with his Lebanese background and the atmosphere within his family. First-generation immigrants, like new converts to religion, have a greater sense than others of the need to serve and defend their home and to prove thereby that they are worthy of it. After a meal of mutton and rice at Merjayoun, Lebanon, Jabara began his remarks with the statement that “I am an American. You are Lebanese. Yet the same blood runs in our veins.” While his family feared for his safety in his chosen career, it was most supportive of his patriotic ideals. In fact it can be said that, next to country, the prime repository of Jabara’s emotion was family – his siblings, his wife and his four children. It was God, country, family. The standard heroic mix, made anything but cliché’ in this application. “To say I am surprised at your heroism in Korea,” his father wrote in a 1951 cablegram, “would not be true. But to say I am proud of you is an understatement of fact. Jimmy, today I am bursting with pride.” Emotion bred emotion.
All lives must end. Jabara was at the edge of death’s abyss so often that all about him were accustomed to expecting it. Yet the manner in which that hour came is something filled with irony, and seems at first a bitter stroke of chaotic meaninglessness fallen into a life that had been all of a piece.
On November 17, 1966 the Jabara family, James, Nina, James Jr., Carol Anne, Jeanne and Cathy, was driving on Florida’s Sunshine State Parkway near Delray Beach on the way to a new home in South Carolina where wife and children would wait out Jimmy’s planned combat tour of Viet Nam. Jabara was by then the youngest Colonel in the Air Force, was widely rumored to be on the brink of promotion to General. Carol Anne, sixteen years old, was driving a Volkswagen with her father as a passenger, while behind came Nina and the other children. Going through a construction zone, Carol Anne lost control of the car and it rolled several times. James Jabara was pronounced dead on arrival at the Delray hospital and Carol died two days later. The two were buried together in a single grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
Editorials on Jabara’s accomplishments ran that week in newspapers all over the country, and there were ceremonial fly-overs of jets with one in the formation missing at several Air Force bases. Yet there seemed to many at the time something unnatural as well as tragic about this manner of death for Jabara. Wrote a reporter in St. Louis: “By all the rules of an indifferent and unruly world, he should have died of old age or gone down in flames under enemy guns. But it didn’t happen that way at all.”
In retrospect, the tragedy is not lessened, but perhaps the irony is. Jabara always hated cars, and to have gone down in a plane would have compromised his reputation of aerial invincibility. Heroes die young. Jabara died in his fighting prime, ready and able as ever to enter the cockpit and follow the target. We do not remember him as an old man telling of distant exploits, but as a young man in the midst of them. And his death in the 1960s fixed him forever in an era of non-computerized head-to-head personal combat which was about to end with the war he was then entering. The latest fighter of the 1980s cannot be flown by a man at all. Its aerodynamic surfaces are designed to be adjusted by computer, and its targeting is long-range and automatic. Jimmy Jabara might not have enjoyed seeing that.
In death, too, Jabara began to stand the final and most important test of his status as an authentic hero – the test of time. For awhile it was feared he might be largely forgotten, even in Wichita, but, like all heroes, his reputation and his legend grows as the passage of time reveals more surely how rare he was. His memory retains the power to inspire, even as the memory of other heroic warriors inspired him.
“Good-bye, Sir,” wrote a newspaper man at the time of James Jabara’s death, “Well done.”
Researched and written by Craig Miner, ©1984
Article reprinted with the kind permission of historian Craig Miner.