In February 1983, this magazine began the regular presentation of a new series we called “Valor.” Each month since then, these short articles have recounted instances of individual bravery from the eighty-year history of the US Air Force and its predecessor organizations. Some have told of heroism in peacetime, and a few have been about moral courage. Most, however, have been stories of the valor of American airman in the two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam.
In a sense, each Valor episode stands alone, an account of how one airman responded to a unique situation at a particular time and place. But can we find patterns in the diversity? Do these glimpses of valor, taken together, help us understand something about the essential nature of military heroism? Valor is probably too complex to be analyzed and explained completely, but a few conclusions are possible.
Some have said that situations and circumstances make heroes. The Valor casebook confirms this, up to a point. Furthermore, military professionals are inclined to accept danger as part of the job. Yet opportunity and circumstances provide only a setting for valor. They do not make it happen. Otherwise, spectacular heroism would be far more common than it is.
For the past four years, the Valor series has been written by John Frisbee, a bomber and fighter pilot during his Air Force career and a former Editor of this magazine. He once asked Col. Robinson Risner, Korean fighter ace and leader among American POWs in Vietnam, how he figured the odds on survival in combat. “You don’t figure the odds,” Risner said. “You see what has to be done, and you do it.” The difference is that not everyone sees “what has to be done” as starkly as Risner might, and fewer still would have the courage to press on without regard for the odds.
Those who do press on come in several categories. Most of the fifty-eight airmen awarded the Medal of Honor in four wars, for example, were men who engaged the enemy in direct combat exchanges. They are in the mold of Lt. Col. James H. Howard, who took on thirty Luftwaffe fighters by himself to protect a formation of B-17 bombers on January 11, 1944. He shot down three fighters, scored one probable, and damaged at least two others. When he ran out of ammunition, he broke up further attacks by diving his P-51 Mustang at the Germans.
In another category of courage are those who steel themselves to press on through fire and flak to deliver ordnance or carry out other missions that may not include shooting back at those shooting at them. John Frisbee says: “At the top of my mission hierarchy are the rescue people who fly their barn-size, slow-moving choppers into flak traps and hover there, a fat target for enemy gunners, and the pararescue men who go down into a firefight to save others.”
We can further conclude that fearlessness seldom has anything much to do with valor. There are probably exceptions, and one of them may have been the impetuous Frank Luke, World War I ace and the first airman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Luke threw himself into battle with no apparent heed to personal risk. The judgment of a flight leader in Luke’s squadron, however, was that Luke wasn’t fearless; he simply was unable to imagine that anything could possibly happen to him.
More typical are the heroes who felt fear but overcame it with self-discipline and inner reserves of character. Many not only recognized the danger but also faced up to the near certainty that they could not live through the actions they were about to undertake. This is especially true in the situation in which combat heroism has most often been manifest: the attempt to save the lives of comrades and allies. Majs. Louis J. Sebille and Charles J. Loring, Jr., for example, deliberately crashed their fighters into North Korean positions to save Army troops.
Some heroes may have been swept along by the quick-developing events of the moment, but others had plenty of time to think about it. Reflexive response is not a common denominator of valor in battle or elsewhere. Sgt. Paul R. Ramoneda, a cook, had been at the scene of a B-29 crash for ten minutes and had helped pull eight men from the burning wreckage on August 9, 1950. He had heard the warning that the aircraft was about to explode. He was well aware of the danger when he wrapped an apron around his head and face and waded in after additional survivors, losing his life in the attempt. Even more deliberate was Lt. Col. John Paul Stapp, the flight surgeon who twenty-nine times rode a rocket sled at speeds up to 632 miles an hour with a sudden stop at the end in order to learn whether pilots could eject safely from supersonic aircraft.
To the extent that generalizations are possible, heroes tend to be strong in their beliefs, with definite perceptions about right and wrong. They often possess a highly developed sense of responsibility. A number of them have been deeply religious. Their individual motivations may have differed, but in the end, all of them chose to apply the standard of “Duty, Honor, Country” in an exceptional way.
These glimpses of valor — what airmen have done over the Saint-Mihiel salient and Ploesti, in MiG Alley and Route Pack Six — are a powerful part of the heritage of airpower. There is much that we can and should learn from the study of it. The importance is obvious for military professionals, who themselves might face the supreme tests of duty and danger someday.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag