“People don’t really understand and know that the Cold War was a real war with real casualties. Real people died.”- Lorna Bourg, sister of a 1958 KIA, Fort Myers, Va.,Military Post Chapel, April 2, 1997
In a graveyard in the Texas town of Corsicana lies a simple flat granite marker to
commemorate the life and death of Major John MacArthur Davis. His mother, Mrs. C.J. Davis, made application for the stone for an unmarked veteran’s grave on August 19th 1953 and on November 2nd 1953 the request was approved by the government. Corsicana makes no mention of Major Davis as one of their notables, but he is. The official Corsicana list of notables includes rappers, artists, saxophonists, writers, historians, and even a former governor, Beaufort Jester (how appropriate is that name?), but no military men or women. Yet in their midst lies a man who died on April 24, 1953 testing technology that might have saved their bacon had the Cold War gone hot.
John M. Davis was not just a pilot he was a son, husband and father. That was the man who was and is mourned after six decades. What Major Davis the pilot did provides him with simple, short passages in a couple of books about the accident that killed him. In those books he is little more that another instrument in the cockpit but there is so much beyond that. Major Davis was a Cold War Warrior and a WWII warrior. His adult life was about those callings.
WWII catches John Davis enlisting in the 9th Air Force out of West Point. According to the Ninth Air force Association, the WWII history of this unit was exciting and dangerous:
The Ninth Air Force was unofficially born per the following quotation from the official history: “on 28th June 1942, Major General Lewis H. Brereton was placed in command of the U.S. Army – Middle East Air Force (USAMEAF)”
General Brereton brought a dozen B-17’s with him from India. They joined a misfit number of B-24’s originally to ferry airplanes from the U.S. to China, but were waylaid in the Middle East because of Rommel’s alarming successes in North Africa. They were pressed into service to help the British 8th Army hold Cairo. A Colonel Halverson was the original leader of this ferry mission. Simultaneously, Colonel Mears led a group of P-40’s off the aircraft carrier “Ranger” on the west coast of Africa and without loss delivered them to Middle East A.F. in Cairo.
After Rommel was halted at El Alamein, the importance of having heavy bombers in the theater had been demonstrated.
The U.S. Army Middle East Air Force was finally re-designated the Ninth Air Force on November 12, 1942 with General Brereton in command. By this time the force had received a few fighter planes, troop carrier units and more bombers, both heavy and medium. Meager as they were in the theater at first, it was an important morale boost for the ground forces fighting there.
So, it was out of combat necessity that the Ninth Air Force came into existence – not some planning table or ivory tower think tank. At first it was a touch-and -go operation at best. In 1943 these fellows were the real pioneers. Additional units were assigned as the might of the gigantic United States industrial arsenal kicked into gear with trained pilots and more aircraft.
Out of the initial experience came the “Three Commandments” that have been the Ninth Air Force’s tactical purposes even today: 1. Gain air superiority; 2. Deny the enemy the ability to replenish or replace losses and; 3. Offer ground forces close support.
After success in North Africa, the Ninth took on an even more essential mission, the invasion of Sicily and the boot mainland of Italy. Bombers, fighters, troop carriers and support units were reinforced and given new designations. In just one year’s time the small beleaguered Middle East Air Force had developed into a formidable air armada.
Highlights of the North Africa and Sicily campaigns must be mentioned – even in the briefest of histories. Namely, the “Palm Sunday Massacre,” April 18, 1943, when
Ninth Air Force fighters caught hundreds of German JU52 transports low over the water of the Mediterranean attempting to evacuate troops from North Africa. It was just that. A massacre. Axis Sally called the Ninth Air Force fighters “Butchers of the Ninth” that evening. And of course, the most famous of all, the Ploesti oil refinery raids in July 1943. Colonel John “Killer” Kane, leader of the 98th Bomb Group (B-24’s), was among four Medal of Honor awardees for special heroism on that expensive but heroic mission.
In October 1943, the plan called for relocation of the Ninth Air Force to England preparatory to the “D” Day Invasion. At first the Ninth was assigned to operation “Point Blank” along with the Eighth Air Force. Mission: to smash the German Luftwaffe in the air and on the ground to bring about complete air supremacy. Medium bombers of the Eighth were reassigned to the Ninth. In effect, the plan was to prepare the Ninth’s units for their major role: that of direct tactical support for ground forces in the coming invasion.
By “D” Day, June 6, 1944, the Ninth had become the largest tactical Air Force ever assembled under one command, 250,000 people with 3,500 airplanes in 1,500 units. It consisted of fighters, bombers, troop carriers, air defense, engineering and service commands.
On June 15, 1944, General Eisenhower hosted his newly commissioned son, John Eisenhower, on a tour of the battle zone in Normandy. John was startled to see vehicles moving bumper-to-bumper in complete violation to military textbook doctrine. “You would never get away with this if you didn’t have air supremacy” he told his father. General Eisenhower snorted, “If I didn’t have air supremacy, I wouldn’t be here!” (My emphasis)
Apparently Major Davis became addicted to the adrenalin rush because he moved smartly from WWII fighter pilot to Air Force test pilot of new technology for Project FICON (Fighter Conveyer) as his world transitioned from hot to cold war. In early 1953, Eisenhower began his presidency with the conviction that nuclear weapons delivered by bombers were the strategy of choice to contain the old Soviet Union.
The Geopolitical Context
While the policy was unchanged from the Truman administration, Eisenhower’s commitment to heavy bombing capability was one born of battlefield experience. Although the Soviets certainly could use airplanes, they were never huge ‘deliver-the-bomb-by-airplane’ proponents and, in 1957, the Soviet Union demonstrated its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) prowess. Oops! Time for plan B-missiles. But in 1953 bombers and the delivery of their payload were the focus.
The question was how do you get a slow and lumbering big bomber all the way to the Soviet Union’s major population centers (it was believed that strategic nukes win wars by destroying large numbers of people and demoralizing and enemy) to deliver their payload and back again in one piece. The little airplanes used as fighters did not have the range and mid-air refueling was not a viable option. The idea those wild and crazy guys in their flying machines hatched was that the bomber would carry its own fighter escort on its wings’ tips. How that was to work technically is well-explained in the Goleta Air & Space Museum’s Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF Project FICON. Major Davis was a member of the team testing that technology on that partly cloudy day in April 1953 when the accident happened over Peconic Bay in New York.
Major Davis and Lt. Col. Bud Anderson were flying Republic’s EF-84D Thunderjets with
modified wingtips for hooking up with the bomber, an EB-29A. Davis, Anderson and the rest of the Project FICON team had previously successfully completed the docking maneuver more than once. According to Brian Lockett’s account in his book Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF: Wing Tip Coupling, Bud Anderson waved-off docking his EF-84D with the bomber because his autopilot was malfunctioning. Anderson, who was driving the right-hand EF-84D, was condemned to witness the accident.
John Davis had no indication of trouble and proceeded with the docking maneuver. One of the things they were testing that day was Republic’s automated flight control system. Republic had been given a contract to develop an automated flight control system to maintain the fighter in the right attitude during coupled flight. The contract was amended to include additional refinements to the docking mechanism. Republic subcontracted the autopilot work and kept the aero-mechanical work in house.
Lockett relates that “At approximately 5:45 PM, Major John Davis brought the left-hand EF-84D into position and linked wing tips with the EB-29A. He transmitted, “Autopilot coming on” and then switched the autopilot on. It commanded hard nose-up elevator. Davis’ Thunderjet rolled rapidly to the right onto the outer wing panel of the Superfortress. As the fighter rotated about the wing tip of the bomber, the explosive bolts fired to jettison the Thunderjet, but not in time to prevent the collision between the planes. The left-wing of the EB-29A failed outboard of the engines. The nose of the ED-84A broke away from the rest of the airplane.” In the bomber, the six crewmembers faced the almost impossible task of escaping their burning airplane. Only one, Master Sergeant Chemp, managed to make through the aft bulkhead into the tail where the emergency exit was located but he was unable to make to get the foxtrot out. The recovery operation took several days and the New York Times report of the accident over Peconic Bay did not mention Project FICON. The official findings found that there was no integrated safety effort; the result of a failure in the division of authority between the Air Force (Wright Field), Republic and Republic’s autopilot subcontractor.
The news of the accident hit Project FICON hard, but it did not end it. After several months, the program was back on track with two new RF-84s and a B-36 Peacemaker. The first test connection was made exactly three years later on April 24th 1956. Almost 50 hookups were made during a five month period, but on the afternoon of September 26th history almost repeated itself. While engaging the connecting mechanisms, the RF-84 began to rift out of control, very much like Davis’ has three years earlier. Fortunately for both aircraft, the pilot was able to detach in time and both airplanes, which had sustained minor damage, landed at Texas’ Carswell AFB. The program was cancelled shortly thereafter.
Major Davis and the six other team members who died that day were seven of the real people that died during the Cold War. In Major Davis’s life a young widow and two children had to cope without the handsome, brilliant, cocky, funny young man who was the center of their lives. At the end of the young widow’s earthly journey, she asked only to be buried next to him. Her daughter carried out her wish and her mother’s ashes were born to Cosicana, Texas where so long ago his grieving mother had requested John Davis’ ashes be marked with a simple, flat granite marker. The daughter arrived at the cemetery on Veteran’s Day to complete her promise. The graves of all the good soldiers were alive with color. It took the backhoe operators several stressful hours to locate John Davis’ remains so that the two could be together. According the Major Davis’ son “After returning everything in place, my sister asked the men what she owed them. The foreman gazed at the flags for my father, uncle, and grandfather. He replied: “We think you’ve paid enough already.””
The Cold War took lives in many ways other than in declared and publicized combat zones; in combat out of declared war zones, on secret missions, in technology testing and development, in training for combat, as well as flight and naval operations. There has never been an accurate count of the men and women who died in the Cold War. Added to the deaths in combat this would be the actual fatal casualty count for the hostile deaths the U.S. public has so long been led to believe never occurred. Did you know that during the Korean and Vietnam war eras, tens of thousands of Americans in uniform died outside the war zones from non-hostile causes: 2,329 in Germany alone between 1965 and 1975, for example?
I learned about Major John Davis by happenstance through correspondence with his son on another subject entirely. His response is one I find more often than not in the families who suffered these losses. “She (his sister) and I agree that the suffering experienced by the families of fallen service members is no more tragic than those who lose loved ones by car accidents or cancer. In fact, it is less tragic, as most service people willingly choose a dangerous career.”
We are most fortunate that this caliber of people live among us.
 Ninth Air Force; EAGLE’S EYE VIEW: HISTORY OF THE NINTH AIR FORCE; http://9thairforce.org/history.htm
 Goleta Air & Space Museum; Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF Project FICON; http://www.air-and-space.com/ficon.htm
 Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF: Wing Tip Coupling; pgs. 52-56; July 22, 2009; Brian Lockett; http://www.amazon.com/Flying-Aircraft-Carriers-USAF-Coupling/dp/0578031868
 American Cold War Vets; Commemorating Cold War Combat Casualties; http://www.americancoldwarvets.org/docs/VFW_Casualties_1.pdf