Class Of 1964 USAF Academy JIM'S HISTORY


Growing up in the heart of Cajun country in Lafayette, Louisiana I had three major goals in life ... fly airplanes, play football at LSU and become a doctor. My father had flown 50 missions over Germany as a navigator in a B-17 and loved aviation ... though not that part of it. He offered my brother, sister and me the opportunity to fly and two days after my 16th birthday I took my first flying lesson ... in a J-3 Cub. Wow! I was hooked. Got the private pilot license during my senior year in high school. A local judge called my father and said our congressman was looking for kids to nominate for the military academies and my name had come up. I had offers from other schools in Louisiana but LSU had not recruited me. I was still planning to walk-on at LSU but the opportunity to fly jets and maybe play ball at the school that had just played in the Cotton Bowl was just too much to pass up. And the recruiters at Barksdale assured me that I could probably fly first and then go to medical school later.

I flew to Denver on my 18th birthday, 26 June 1960. Spent the night at the Brown Palace. I wasn't much of a drinker but I decided to celebrate a little on my last night before entering "college" so I went down to the bar and ordered a beer. Much to my surprise they asked for my ID and then refused to serve me. I had never heard of a "drinking age" in Louisiana.

The following morning I took a bus south and was dropped off at the North Gate. A fellow in a blue AP truck picked me up and drove me up to the cadet area. He had a few stripes on his shirt and seemed pretty authoritative. As we passed the parade ground he pointed it out and said "That's where you'll graduate ... if you make it." I let that soak in a few seconds and replied, "I'll make it."

A short time later I was not nearly so confident about making it. I thought I was in the middle of Hurricane Audrey again. Yes sir. No sir. No excuse, sir. Ingram, JC. 2453K. I could hardly remember my name, much less those numbers. But soon it became just a game of suck it up, put out, do your best, help your pals and don't take it personally. I thanked my lucky stars that I was in pretty good shape. I had run in the state track meet only a few weeks before. But, I still lost close to 20 pounds that summer.

A big help during doolie summer was my roommate, Rick Walsh. He was from Detroit. He was also a pilot and had flown a lot with the Civil Air Patrol. The Cajun and the Polock managed to find enough humor in everything to soften the blows that we were dealt. We roomed together for four semesters. I've never let him forget that he brought his electric razor on survival.

Freshman football was a real life saver. A few hours of butting heads was a welcome respite from harassment. And the training tables in Mitchell Hall beat the hell out of the squadron tables. I learned how to make perfect "goldy-golden" tea for Monte Moorberg. I was a wide receiver in high school but wasn't fast enough at the college level, so I became a defensive back. Go figure. At least I was a good tackler. Boxing was also a great distraction from the fourth class system. And winning the wing open was a thrill. Randy Cubero swears it was a split decision but I remember it as unanimous. We still joke about it.

In 14th Squadron we were fortunate to have a great AOC in Capt. Jack Gentry. What a class act he was! He remains my role model of a fine Air Force officer.

Third class year was consumed with football practice in the fall and boxing in the spring. Went on the Southern European field trip that summer. Our first stop was Madrid and they put us up in a fancy hoteI, the Castilliana Hilton. When we arrived in our room, bladders full, the bathroom had the strangest urinal I had ever seen. Of course I used it and reported to the bellboy that it wasn't flushing right. My first encounter with a bidet. Country come to town. Spent my 20th birthday in Paris.

Second class year was a similar experience to the year before. By then I had a favorite spot on the bench and Jim Conboy was getting tired of alternating between taping my ankle and putting a splint on it. He said he much preferred wrapping my hands for boxing matches. Ben Martin was a great guy, too. He took the time each year to write a personal note to my parents on a Christmas card, something they really appreciated. Spring semester I moved to group staff and was lucky enough to have another wonderful roommate in Hugh Williamson. Like Rick, a brilliant student. Since Sonny was from Mobile we traveled together and had some great adventures. The most memorable event of the spring was my wing finals match with Tony Mellos, the highlight of which was “the punch.” That has been a topic of much cajoling between the two of us over the years.

Shortly before football spring training was to begin, on advice from Doc Haworth and Coach Homer Smith, I decided to opt out of football my senior year. It is a decision I will always regret. I had briefly made the varsity starting lineup both my sophomore and junior years, but sprained ankles kept me from playing. As frustrating as that was, I will always wonder, what if?

First class year began with accepting the saber from Mick Roth at the graduation parade and assuming command of the first summer training session. That was pretty uneventful with the Class of '67 performing admirably under the tutelage of '64. I passed it on to Jack Hudson at the end of the first session.

Probably the greatest honor, and challenge, I have ever received was the command of the cadet wing in the fall of 1963. I averaged about three hours sleep a night that semester. I was fortunate to have a super bunch of guys on wing staff. Dennis Stiles was the Executive Officer, Jeffrey Baker was Admin, Kevin McManus was Materiel, Dave Samuel was Information. Once again I had a great roommate in Tom Kullgren, the Training Officer. Wing NCO's were Warren Langley and Brian Wages. Although I was probably wound too tight they all helped lighten the load with their support, wisdom and humor. The group commanders, McArtor, Mahan, Saito and Hermanson kept me on my toes with practical jokes. MSgt Bill Coltrin was a great help, too.

Other than the win over Nebraska, my highlights of the fall semester centered around President Kennedy. He was a great supporter of the military academies. He invited the wing/brigade commanders of the four academies to the White House for a visit in the Oval Office, a State Reception and a photo shot for the cover of the Sunday newspaper supplement, This Week. I will detail that in a separate story.

News of the president's assassination was just being broadcast as we arrived at Mitchell Hall for lunch that fateful Friday. I asked General Strong if he wanted to make the announcement and he told me to go ahead. I will never forget the words I said after Jeff Baker called the room to attention. “There has been an attempted assassination of the President of the United States. He lies in a Dallas hospital with a gunshot wound to the head. His condition is unknown. We will keep you posted. At ease.”

I don't remember who accompanied me to Washington for the funeral but it was an honor guard of 100 men. We marched for hours through the city packed with millions, and you could have heard a pin drop. Silence … except for the drums.

As first semester and my time as wing commander ended I left my legacy to the Air Force Academy, the position of vice-wing commander. It was upon my recommendation that General Strong created that position. It has continued to this day.

At some time during the year I found out I was color blind … or at least color deficient. We put in requests for pilot training and I was all set to go to Williams AFB in Phoenix. I flunked the flight physical on that basis and even the Commandant could not get me a waiver. Three graduates from the Class of 1963 had gone to medical school. So, I applied to LSU Medical School and was accepted. However, the dean's office said that since only three from the last year had gone, then only three from our class could go. And since I was late in applying, I could not go. That was a USAFA ruling, not from Air Force, as I found out later.

It was pretty much downhill from there. Spring semester flew by. I was taking Navigation and it was a lot of fun except for the day of the Wing Open finals. I was up at 3 AM and flew a navigation mission to Las Vegas. Got back about 4PM, exhausted, and had to fight about 6PM. It was probably the sloppiest boxing match I ever fought but I got by. Ended up with a 31-0-0 record and 4 wing championships....a first at USAFA. A short time before graduation Capt. Jim Crews, the OIC of boxing, told me that earlier during the year I had received an invitation from US Olympic officials to participate in the 1964 Olympic tryouts. He said the Academy administration turned it down because I would “miss too much school.” I was never informed.

I was commissioned into the Medical Service Corps instead of the Line of the Air Force since I was destined to go into medicine. I was assigned as an administrative officer at Gunter AFB. Shortly after graduation I received a phone call from the AF Surgeon General's office. A Col. Nicely said he had heard I was interested in going to medical school and wondered why I had not applied. The AF surgeon general wanted some USAFA graduates in the medical corps. He was surprised at my story and said I could go next year. The 3-person limit assumed by the Dean's office was not true.

So I spent a year as an administrative officer at Gunter AFB in Montgomery, AL. It was not unpleasant, but not a very professionally fruitful year.

I started LSU Medical School on Sep 5, 1965, the day Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans. It was not long before I had a rude awakening to the “real world.” After four years of living and breathing the cadet honor code, on our first gross anatomy exam someone asked me for an answer. I felt like my heart had stopped. I guess word got around. I kept the faith for another four years.

During my medical school years my summers were spent at the Keesler AFB hospital. It was great medical experience but I had a lot of free time. Playing my trumpet in night clubs on the gulf coast was a kick. I also had time to pick up a commercial pilot license.

My main interest in medical school evolved into surgery. LSU/Charity Hospital had a legendary surgery residency but I did not want to be an intern there. So, when I finished med school in 1969 I went to St. Joseph Hospital in Denver for my internship. I could not have made a better choice. It was a wonderful year. Worked hard. Learned a lot. And still managed to ski 13 different ski areas.

In 1970 it was back to New Orleans. The next four years of general surgery residency were hard but I loved it. Sometimes went days without sleep. But, it was nothing compared with what most of my USAFA classmates were going through in Viet Nam. Hats off to you guys! I took care of a lot of gunshot patients, but nobody ever shot at me.

On finishing my general surgery training in 1974 I put on a uniform again. I reported to Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson. Another great experience. Most surgeons finish their training and have to spend years building a practice and gaining experience. In a major retirement area air force regional hospital there was lots to do and I was busy from day one. Loved my two years there.

In 1976 I was off to MacDill AFB. Another regional hospital in a retirement area. By then I was an LTC so I was chief of surgery. Eventually became Chief of Surgical Services which was an O-6 position. Over the years I had developed a special interest in vascular surgery. I applied for a vascular surgery fellowship which the AF initially approved but reneged on a few months before I was to report. That was a major career turning point.

I left the Air Force in 1978 and spent a year as a vascular surgery fellow at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Great program. Beautiful city. A most rewarding year.

In 1979 I returned to my roots. I started a solo practice of vascular surgery in Lafayette and have been here since. I also started flying again and soon picked up instrument and multi-engine tickets.

It was at our 30-year Class of '64 reunion that I really began to feel guilty about not completing an AF career. With a lot of encouragement from classmates I returned home and applied for a commission in the Air Force Reserve. I took the oath in the spring of 1995 and spent the next six years traveling the 420 miles from Lafayette to Lackland AFB every month.

I underestimated the commitment that would require. I planned on simply a weekend a month and a couple of weeks a summer. My 17-year hiatus from the military made me forget how fluid an organization can be, with transfers, retirements, etc. In less than three years I found myself as commander of the 433d Contingency Hospital. That meant at least one additional day a month away from work and frequent additional trips to San Antonio. A Beech Baron and later a Cessna 310 made the trips easier.

Overall it was a very gratifying experience. I attended flight surgeon school and became their oldest graduate. I contend that every career medical officer in line for a command position should attend the School of Aerospace Medicine, regardless their specialty in medicine. You learn the kind of stuff that Air Force doctors ought to know. And it made me a better commander.

I ratcheted back my vascular surgery practice in 2001. I quit doing major arterial surgery and the emergencies that go with it. Quality of life greatly improved with no call and a regular schedule. Since then I only do elective vein surgery that is all outpatient and generally on healthy patients.

Barbara and I were married in 1984. She has a degree in computer science with a minor in accounting. She handles all the payables and payroll in my office of seven employees. Barbara also is a pilot. Grace was born in 1986 and Kathleen in 1987. At the time of this writing (March 2011) Gracie is in her junior year at LSU Medical School and Katty is in her second year at Ole Miss Law School. My son, Jim III, from a previous marriage is 38 and recently married. He has a degree in computer animation and works for a TV station. He is quite a talented musician and occupies his weekends performing with several bands. I am proud to say that all three of my children are accomplished pianists.

I enjoy hunting and fishing but my main hobby is golf, and Barbara is learning. We like to travel and a few years ago we traded in the airplane for an RV. So far we are blessed with good health. Retirement should not be too far away. We hope to see this beautiful country up close and knock on some doors of old friends.

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