We inherit our relatives but we choose our friends. Below are some of my most valued friends, no longer with us. The statistics are eerie. All four of my deceased closest friends died in June; three were born in September. Two carried “III” after their names. The fact that all four were pilots and two had shot down enemy aircraft is not coincidental, given my aviation orientation. Two were coauthors; another was my closest colleague in the business.
Jeff Ethell (September 29, 1947-June 6, 1997)
Jeff and I grew up together, in a manner of speaking. We used to joke that we were president and vice president of the world’s smallest club: full-time self-employed aviation historians with no outside income. We had tentative plans to collaborate on a book after so many years of working separately, and in the summer of ’97 it looked promising. Then I got the call from Tillamook. On “D Plus 53” Jeff was killed flying one of the museum’s P-38s, the one aircraft he admired above all because his father had flown Lightnings in WW II.
Jeff was irreplaceable; nobody else did what he did so well for so long. Years before he died he’d logged 750 hours in current military aircraft worldwide, from South America to Europe and Russia. That was Jeff: he made things happen yet he remained low-key and self-effacing about his accomplishments. After all, how many ordained Baptist ministers went to heaven in a P-38?
Marion Carl (November 1, 1915-June 29, 1998)
Marion Carl had the flying gene the way Beethoven had the music gene. Marion was the finest aviator I ever knew—and that’s saying something. He soloed in 2 ½ hours—anything less is only theoretically possible. After that he only got better: he was the Marine Corps’ first ace, its first helicopter pilot, and a record-setting test pilot. When Chuck Yeager penetrated the sound barrier in 1947, he broke Marion’s previous record.
Despite his exceptional achievements, Marion was absolutely genuine: he didn’t know how to be pretentious. He answered the phone “This is Marion.” In 25 years I never heard him refer to himself as “General Carl.” Possibly that’s because he was focused on achievement rather than status. At any rate, he died fighting at age 82, defending his wife Edna from a teenage drug addict who broke into their Oregon home. In an era when Americans are unable to distinguish between heroism and mere celebrity, Marion Carl remained a hero.
George Olmsted (September 20, 1955-June 19, 2002)
George H. Olmsted, III was my best friend for nine years. After he died at 46, I realized that he had more “best friends” than anyone I ever knew. Letters and contacts with people I never heard of said much the same thing: he had always been there for true friends.
George and I discovered that we had two things in common: airplanes and guns. After a lengthy medical grounding, he got back in the cockpit just a month before he died. It was pure fun, flying aerobatics in his pet Yak. In cowboy action shooting we led the national championship posse at Winter Range 1997, and our posses or teams placed second at least two other times. But there we had more than just shared interests. We were brothers under the skin, and even today I consider George one of a handful of “2:00 o’clock friends”—those you could call at 2:00 a.m. for help burying the body.
I never had a better friend. And neither did anyone else.
John Nichols (September 28, 1931- June 17, 2004)
Cdr. John B. Nichols, III was known as “Pirate” to two generations of naval aviators. He was also the closest collaborator I ever had. We wrote two books together: Warriors the novel and his Vietnam retrospective, On Yankee Station. Oddly, OYS was placed on the Marine Corps and Air Force professional reading lists but never made the Navy list. Perhaps some admirals considered John too blunt in his opinions, but if so he wasn’t the least concerned.
When John died of cancer at 72, his friends were surprised to learn that he’d been a 19-year-old infantryman in Korea. He seldom spoke of that awful experience, but he was downright eloquent about Vietnam. And small wonder: John was among the most competent people I ever knew: as an aviator, fighter pilot, instructor, and LSO he was always rated tops. For most of the time I knew him he conceded he was “safety-wired on the Intense setting.” But after OYS, and after marrying his beloved Jackie, the Pirate dropped his seabag and settled down. But he never stopped being just…plain…fun.
Nyle B. Leatham (July 27, 1930 - November 23, 2007)
Nyle was one of the nicest, finest people I ever knew, and that’s saying something. We worked together as photographer and writer more than 20 times, but mainly I valued him as a cherished friend—a sentiment shared by scores of others when he died far too soon.
Eventually most people realized that Nyle was far more than a world-class photographer. Yes, he was extremely good at what he did, but he confided that the lens was his window on the world, permitting him to watch all kinds of people in their native habitat without drawing undue attention. That was Nyle—ever aware, ever subtle.
Sometimes the phone would ring and I’d hear that soft voice, “Mr. B., we should go do something.” Whether it involved shooting or flying—or anything else—didn’t matter. Any time spent with Nyle was quality time.
He was one of those rare people who truly was irreplaceable.
Cdr. Alexander Vraciu, USN (Nov. 2, 1918 - Jan. 29, 2015)
Alex--and eventually his family--were part of my life for more than 40 years. Kay and the five kids could not possibly have been more welcoming or accepting.
Naturally, Alex was best known for his WW II record, remaining the fourth-ranked Navy ace of all time. He was always quietly factual about his combat days, never a chest-thumper as some heroic men were—and are. Like his friend and colleague Marion Carl, he had nothing to prove to anyone.
However, the man I knew and the friend I cherished was only peripherally a superb fighter pilot. In fact, he insisted on appointing himself manuscript editor of my novel, Hellcats, and I treasure the comments he sent on pages of yellow legal paper.
More importantly, he was a gentleman and a gentle man, and it’s astonishing to realize he was the last WW II naval aviator I knew well. We will not see his like again.
Eleanor Anderson ( Feb 3, 1923 - Jan 30, 2015 ) Wife of WWII Triple Ace, CE "Bud" Anderson.
Col. Rex T. Barber, USAF 1917-2001
Lt. Cdr. Richard H. Best, USN 1910-2001
Capt. John T. Blackburn, USN 1912-1994
Calvin J. Butler 1918-2004
Edna K. Carl 1924-2007
Douglas L. Champlin 1941-2013
Cdr. W. Edward Copeland, USN 1922-2001
Capt. Richard L. “Zeke” Cormier, USN 1919-2001
Cdr. Merle W. “Butch” Davenport, USN 1918-1989
Mike Dillon 1935-2016
Capt. Robert G. Dose’, USN 1915-1998
Donald R. Duncan 1917-2004
Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Foss, USAFR 1915-2003
Capt. Wynn Foster, USN 1926-2013
Gen. Lt. Adolf Galland 1912-1996
“Bad Chas” Harrall 1939-2002
Edward H. Heinemann, 1908-1991
Bedford M. Hertel 1920-1997
John H. Lane 1919-1984
Rear Adm. William N. Leonard, USN 1916-2005
Rear Adm. Maxwell F. Leslie, USN 1902-1985
Alfred C. Mar, Jr. 1938-1992
Richard J. McWhorter 1921-2007
Vice Adm. William I. Martin, USN 1910-1996
Capt. David McCampbell, USN 1910-1996
Cdr. H. Blake Moranville, USN 1923-2000
Bruce W. Nelson 1948-1995
John E. Purdy 1919-2003
Rear Adm. James D. Ramage, USN 1916-2012
Ginger Ramage 1928-2009
Adm. James S. Russell, USN 1903-1996
Brig. Gen. Robert L. Scott, Jr., USAF 1908-2006
Cdr. Charles R. Stimpson, USN 1919-1983
Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, USN 1923-2005
Capt. William R. Stuyvesant, USN 1926-1996
Rear Adm. Henry A. Suerstedt, USN 1920-1990
Lt. Col. Richard E. Turner, USAF 1920-1986
Kathryn L. Vraciu 1924-2003
Lt. Col. Kenneth A. Walsh, USMC 1916-1998
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