EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
Since its inception in 1947, the U.S. Air Force has built a fabled history on the backs of brave men and women in uniform.
These individuals each have their own stories to tell. Their lives, like everyone else’s, have their struggles and hardships but also a plethora of joy. The only difference for these Airmen is their commitment to the service of their nation and those they love.
Retired Col. James Elsner, a 100-year-old former pilot once assigned to the 18th Fighter Squadron, has a story of his own which predates the Air Force itself.
Born April 11, 1919 in Hartford, Connecticut, James was the middle child of three sons and spent his early life without all the technology and high-speed action of today’s society.
During his interview over video chat, James expressed his excitement for being able to speak with and see someone in Alaska all the way from his home in Hartford. He would occasionally ask for sentences to be repeated, but that’s probably more of an internet connect issue rather than hearing because he showed off his top-of-the-line hearing aids at the very start.
He’s still actively adapting to the ever changing modern world despite his age. Although, he does still read print newspapers.
As an adolescent James attended the New York Military Academy as a member of the class of ’37, which he mentioned was same school that the current president attended, before attending Hobart College in New York.
Entering Military Service
Around this time, World War II was raging in Europe and on Aug. 2, 1941, James and his younger brother were drafted into the U.S. Army. Eventually his older brother would also serve.
“I don’t like to say this, but I was drafted in,” said James. “It was pretty early on, before the war had even started for the U.S. My brother and I were drafted the same day.”
Following Basic Military Training, James began in the U.S. Army Signal Corps where he grew from the rank of Private First Class to Sergeant before taking the exam for aviation cadets, eventually commissioning as an officer and becoming a pilot in the Army Air Corps.
18th Fighter Squadron
In 1943, the only WWII battle to take place in the continental U.S. broke out on the Aleutian Island of Attu, Alaska. Japanese Forces claimed Attu, hoping to use it to prevent U.S. air attacks from reaching mainland Japan. After U.S. and Canadian forces arrived, the battle with the Japanese Empire’s soldiers lasted for more than two weeks U.S. and Canadian forces finally recaptured the island.
Within a year of U.S. forces reclaiming the Aleutian Islands, James was assigned to the 18th Fighter Squadron and stationed on Attu to defend it against future attacks from the Japanese Empire.
The 18th Fighter Squadron has gone by many different names throughout its history, today being called the 18th Aggressor Squadron, assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. James, the oldest living 18th FS pilot, said the 18th AGRS “Blue Fox” mascot drew inspiration from the foxes which inhabit the island they called home during WWII, mentioning that on several occasions the foxes would allow them to approach and even pet them.
“I was there at Attu for about a year, we flew 18 P-40 Warhawks,” James said. “We had one very illustrious squadron commander. Dean Davenport was his name.”
Davenport is one of the famous pilots who flew during the Doolittle Raids in Japan two years earlier. The raids are considered by many to be a turning point in the war, as it helped reinvigorate American morale after the Pearl Harbor attacks, while also hindering the Japanese Empire’s propaganda.
“In my time at Attu we were scrambled a lot but didn’t see any combat. There was only once that I remember loading up 500 pound bombs onto our P-40s, but then they called it off,” James said. “I’m not ashamed to say this, but I never fired a shot out of anger, but I was ready… I was ready.”
Jame’s P-40 was named Carolyn, after his mother, which highlights his dedication to his family.
James also spoke of the weather conditions on Attu, mentioning thick fog that would appear almost instantly and how pilots would be guided back to the ground using large light signals and a map that showed approach angles based on which light beam was visible. He later retrieved a copy of the map to show off. After 75 years the page has yellowed and the edges have torn, but it is still perfectly readable.
Returning Home and the Elsner Family
In December 1945, James left the Army Air Corps, returning to his life as a civilian where he took up a job at a local department store. It was there that he would be his bride to be, Dorothy.
“We’ve been married 68 years,” said James, as a smile crept across his face and he began to chuckle. “We’re coming up on 69 next October.”
After meeting in 1948, James and Dorothy married in 1950 and had three children; two boys and a girl.
Dorothy, who will turn 93 the day after James’ 100th birthday, has entered a full-time care facility, but this doesn’t stop James from spending time with the love of his life.
“I make sure to visit her every day for several hours,” he said.
Serving in the Connecticut Air National Guard
James was in the reserves for two years between ‘45 and ‘47. When the Army Air Corps separated from the U.S. Army and established the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard, James decided to return to service.
“I joined the Connecticut Air National Guard in 1947 and I was in a flight of planes going over Harry Truman’s second inauguration in 1949,” James remembered.
He mentioned that his guard unit was federalized during the Korean War, but never ended up in combat.
James continued to fly in the Connecticut Air National Guard until 1968, when he lost too much of his hearing to continue being a pilot. He went on to become the deputy commander for materiel, until his retirement in 1971.
Despite his retirement, James continues to attend events at the Connecticut Air National Guard to show his support for the armed forces.
A centenarian and his commitments
Throughout his 30 years of military service, James flew 14 different types of aircraft and had more than 3,500 flight hours.
But more importantly to him, he’s spent 68 years in service of his wife and family.
“I loved flying. Outside being married, flying was the greatest experience,” James said. “Every day I think of the joyous times I had in the air.”
The modern Air Force’s core values of Integrity, Service and Excellence highlight James’ career and family values. One could even say he contributed to their conception through his exemplary service.
Today, April 11, 2019, James turned 100 years old and despite his age, he still continues to support Dorothy prioritizing his time so he can spend it with her.
Happy 100th birthday, retired Col. James Elsner, and thank you for your service.