FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — As an eager teenage pilot trainee at Moffett Field in 1939, Jim Moore could not imagine the wilds he would see just a few short years later from the cockpit of a B-25 in World War II.
Approaching his 95th birthday on Oct. 16, the Fort Smith native and former chief pilot for ABF has long proved people wrong, including his father.
"Dad said, 'Jimmy has very little regard for longevity,'" Moore said of his father's denial to sign a permission slip for him to join the Civilian Pilot Training program.
As a B-25 pilot, Moore flew 75 missions in Japanese-held territory throughout Asia and outlived every original member of what would become the 188th Fighter Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard. As chief pilot for ABF (ArcBest), he shared a laugh with Neil Armstrong in Dayton, Ohio, and lived it up sometimes on the weekend in Colorado Springs with Robert A. Young Jr.
Back in 1939, when he was about 17, Moore got his mother to sign off on the flying form and another influential woman by the name of Mary Camel, "a good-looking lady," Moore said, became his first flight instructor. By September 1941 Moore flew his first airplane, a Piper Cub J3, off the runway at the new Fort Smith Municipal Airport. According to the airport's website, after being conceived in 1936, it wasn't until 1939 that two sod runways were built. Each measured 3,500 feet long and 100 feet wide.
Within a few months of that flight off the new Fort Smith field, the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into a global conflict that had been festering for nearly a decade. Moore enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in July 1942, but was not called up until January 1943.
Then he had to prove the doctor wrong, too.
A physician with the Air Corps at Luke Field in Arizona said Moore had a heart murmur and was "grossly underweight." Weighing 119 pounds, the young pilot told him "There's something you need to know ... I'm a fighting S.O.B." The doctor told the staff sergeant to "pass this man" and write down the minimum weight of 129 pounds.
So off he went to military flight training at Santa Ana, Calif. When he was done, he and his squadron picked up new B-25s at Hunter Field in Savannah, Ga., and flew down through the Caribbean to South America. From Brazil he and his squadron flew out to the middle of the Atlantic and landed at Ascension Island. Moore recalled a runway on Ascension Island being built in a curve around an extinct volcano.
They flew east, on to Nigeria, crossing the Khartoum Desert and "Egyptian Sudan" to Ethiopia and what is now Somalia. He said they were "very careful not to fly over Arabia because that was forbidden airspace." Their first flight overseas to the Pacific-Asian Theater included Karachi, Pakistan and Calcutta, India.
Moore and the rest of the 83rd Squadron of the 12th Bomb Group in the 10th Air Force ended up in a little town on the border with Burma. After landing though, an accident happened that would delay their fight. A rear gun on a B-25 went off and shot a fuel truck, exploding and sending off a chain reaction that knocked out six aircraft. With more Mitchell B-25s flown in from India, the squadrons attacked railroads and bridges and dropped "skip bombs" into tunnels with fury.
"This was a strange war we were fighting ... It was off the beaten track," Moore told the Southwest Times Record . "The Japanese had taken Burma and were ready to go across northern India and Afghanistan and cut the Persian Gulf railroad, which was supplying the Russians on Germany's eastern front. If they would have succeeded in doing that, it would have changed the complexion of the war."
Moore said Gen. Joe Steelwell and others involved directing the China Burma India Theater during World War II had the vision to use aircraft for disrupting Japanese efforts.
"We couldn't go into Burma because the Japanese were holding it," Moore noted. "They turned out to be our enemy. They damn sure weren't our friend. I realized quick that some of those tracers were coming at me instead of going away from me."
Their first encounter with a Japanese Zero ended with the Mitsubishi fighter plane being "evaporated" by the squadron's 75 mm guns, Moore noted.
Flying as far into western China on missions, Moore also found time for some R&R with a trip to Mount Everest, where the 20th Air Command had a "rest camp" at 8,000 feet. He and two buddies camped out under the shadow of earth's tallest mountain for two weeks after riding a train into the mountains. Moore said he got into trouble for the trip, but since he had about 60 missions under his belt at the time they took it easy on him.
"It was a lot of fun," Moore said of the Mount Everest camping trip.
Because of a questionable decision by the Army, Moore's ride back to the United States from Calcutta in 1945 was on a troop ship. He said an order had been given to cut off the tails of their B-25s.
"They disabled them in India, which infuriated everybody, major generals on down, because we flew them over there, why the hell wouldn't they let us fly them home," Moore said. "That doesn't make sense."
They docked at Norfolk, Virginia, after having sailed from Calcutta — where his squadron remains banned from one particular bar for a fight — to the Suez Canal through the Mediterranean and the Gibraltar Strait, and on across the Atlantic Ocean.
David Smith Jr. Human Cannonball at Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair.
"The war was a sightseeing tour for me," Moore said. "It was very educational. I got to meet people from everywhere, and learned responsibility. Nothing like a good war to get your attention and make you responsible, and learn how to work together."
Moore said he still often thinks about the airmen who flew in the back of his B-25 on those missions.
Moore recalled one of his flight crew radioing up to the cockpit to say "Sir, we just saw railroad ties flying up behind us" during a low-flying, skip-bomb run on a tunnel.
He was standing on Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith, headed back to Santa Ana, Calif., in August 1945 when he heard the war was over. He vowed to never leave the North American continent again. He has kept the promise, only straying off into Canada and Mexico briefly since then during his years in the reserves, Arkansas Air National Guard and flying as a corporate pilot.
Although Moore had interviewed with a Kansas City-based airline after returning to the states, the company was only going to offer him $140 a month to fly. So, he went back to work for the U.S. Post Office in Fort Smith until being recruited to be one of the original 13 pilots for the newly formed 184th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. Prior to that, the local Arkansas National Guard unit was the 9840th Volunteer Air Force Reserve Training Squadron with a non-flying role.
As noted in a 2014 Times Record article by Jeff Arnold, the 184th was officially activated as a flying unit on Oct. 15, 1953, and the first T-6D "Texan" trainer aircraft followed six days later. The unit's first mission aircraft, the TB-26B "Invader" arrived Jan. 29, 1954.
Moore remained a traditional guardsman until 1955 when he joined full time as the unit's flight training supervisor. He retired from the 184th in 1962 when the unit became the 188th. Maj. Moore completed his military career with 26 years of honorable service, having earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and two air medals.
"Flying is only as dangerous as you make it," Moore said. "I checked almost 40 people out in the RF-84F in the Guard. They flew it 16 years without a failed accident, an Air Force record."
Despite having no assistance from the Air Force in 1953 when the B-26 Invader's arrived, safety precautions had been learned by the 184th pilots during their war years. Moore said about 45,000 pilots were killed during training throughout Word War II.
Moore said corporate aviation allowed him to be more of "his own boss," and apparently the ABF board of directors liked his style. Many years after having flown the corporate brass in the Twin Beech aircraft, Moore said a board director told him the story of how he was hired. His friend and former operations officer, Lawrence Berry, had gone on to become the vice president of sales for ABF, Moore recalled. The board director told him they called in Berry to give a testimony for Moore.
"He said, 'Jim knows more about flying airplanes than anybody I've known in my lifetime, but he won't do what you tell him to,'" Moore recalled. "He said 'He makes up his mind based on the scientific information that's available and that's all he pays attention to.'"
Moore still pays attention to the news, though. Recalling coverage of the recent 60th anniversary of the historic 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Moore said there's something he doesn't want people to forget. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had called the Arkansas National Guard into active duty to, as Moore says, "take them out of Gov. Faubus' chain of command."
Arkansas National Guard Adjutant General Sherman T. Clinger called Moore on a Sunday morning during the crisis to ask that he carry an air adviser and Col. Franklin Waters, who was also a federal judge, to a National Guard convention in Louisville, Kentucky.
"I'll never forget, I said, 'OK, I'll see you in Louisville," Moore said. "'The hell you will. I'm under house arrest.' The 101st Airborne arrested the adjutant general. That's when I began to realize the Guard was more political an organization rather a military one."
Although the 184th/188th was originally dubbed "Ricks' Rippers," after Maj. Gen. Earl T. Ricks, the name never really stuck, Moore said. A plaque from the Little Rock office had been brought over with an insignia of a Bowie knife and a hangman's noose. Ricks, a former Hot Springs mayor and World War II pilot, was one of the state's first adjutant generals for the Arkansas National Guard and became chief of the Air Force Division and deputy chief of the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C.
Moore's photos from his adventures and his military service ribbons are kept safe by his youngest daughter, Becky, in West Monroe, La. His eldest daughter, Kathy, passed away last year. Moore's first wife, Barbara, died in 1992. He remarried in 1996 to Mary Lee Martin Moore, who died in 2014. His stepdaughter, Melody Martin, and Liner, a Chihuahua mix, keep him company these days.
Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/