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JESS LEWIS

The Distinguished Flying Cross is an impressive bronze medal of a propeller overlying a Maltese cross. Authorized by an act of Congress in 1926, the DFC was first awarded to the pioneers of aviation – Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. But since those first recipients, the award has been limited to military aviators for “heroism and extraordinary achievement in flight.”

Jess Lewis showed me his own DFC in his home in Westlake Village. A man in his seventies now, he spent thirty years as an American Airlines pilot until his retirement in 1983. He has an infectious laugh and a broad smile that communicates his gusto for life. He earned his medal as a marine combat pilot in Korea. But he belies any credit for past heroism as just “doing a job.”

A farmer’s son from Illinois, he was listening to the radio one Sunday afternoon in 1936 when he heard a graduation ceremony for Army Air Corps pilots. “It was very impressive,” he recalls. “You could hear their planes taking off in the background. From that moment, I knew I wanted to fly.”

A requirement for becoming a military aviator was at least two years of college. So he went to the University of Southern Illinois with “nothing in mind but flying.” In July 1945, after extensive training, he was a Marine pilot flying F-4F Wildcats off carriers, on his way to the Pacific, part of an invasion force set for Japan. Then in August, the “A-bomb” ended the war.

The war had passed and he hadn’t fired a shot. He returned home, married Lura Lucille, and had two daughters. But Jess Lewis kept his skills as a pilot in the Marine Reserves and in August 1950, he was called to active duty again for the Korean War.

Lewis showed me photos of himself as a young pilot strapped into the cockpit of his F-4U Corsair, and of his friend and wingman, Lee Bernall, who died in the war.

“The two of us were on a reconnaissance mission,” he explained. “We came on a bunch of tanks about sixty miles north of the lines and began making passes. After my second run, I pulled up and called my friend. He didn’t answer. The smoke of a crash was on a ridge ahead, the tail of his F-4 in the trees. In a fighter-bomber like that on a run, there was no way he could bail out. It could have been me. I was lucky.”

It was in May 1951 that Lewis earned his DFC.

“We were just about ready to go to evening chow,” he remembers, “when we got this request for some help. Some troops just north of us were pinned down. So, we strapped that Corsair on and we went. It was almost dark when we got there and there was a hellova battle going on.”

His citation for that day reads in part: “The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the DFC for heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as pilot of a plane in action against enemy forces near Masogu-Ri Korea on 20 May 1951. Lt. Lewis led his flight to the target area and located enemy positions=2 0despite poor visibility and intense hostile antiaircraft fire.”

Here’s how Jess Lewis describes his battle.

“I had two 500 pound bombs, napalm, five rockets on each wing, and four twenty mm cannons. That’s a lot of firepower. I did a couple of strafing runs with those four twenty millimeters. Sort of gets them pinned down before you go in with bombs. We were up there quite a while and it was getting dark. But it was do or die right then because even if the battle was over for us at dark, it wouldn’t be for the men on the ground.”

Many men have earned medals for heroism. Some are more prestigious medals like the Medal of Honor or the Silver Star.

“But there’s one thing about the Distinguished Flying Cross,” James Warren, another winner, once said. “You can’t buy them down at the corner drugstore. To earn one of these damn things, you have to bet your ass.”