An aging man kneels in front of a white cruciform gravestone, one among a field of thousands of gravestones. Quietly, James Ryan, asks his wife if he’s led a good life…if he’s a good man. James Ryan — Private Ryan — is visiting the resting place of Captain John H. Miller at the Normandy American Cemetery. At the end of the mission to save Private Ryan following the death of his three brothers, Captain Miller, with his last breath, demands that Ryan live out his days in a manner worthy of the sacrifices made by the men sent to rescue him.
Sixty years on, James Ryan needs to know he’s achieved his final mission. In a movie filled with gut wrenching scenes, it’s one of the hardest to watch, yet it’s one of the most instructive for anyone who has walked in the shadows and stood on the shoulders of those who have gone before.
Since November 2017 Thomas Hudner, John McCain, and George H.W. Bush have slipped the surly bonds of earth. Each of these men led noteworthy lives until the very end. One became President, another ran for president after decades of service in the Senate, and one contributed greatly to veterans’ service organizations. Before serving in these positions, however, they shared something significant — each wore the coveted Wings of Gold. They were Naval Aviators.
The day he turned eighteen, George H.W. Bush joined the Navy, eventually becoming the youngest pilot to serve in World War II. He flew 58 combat missions in an overweight, ungainly, carrier-based torpedo bomber known as an Avenger. On one fateful mission his plane was hit by enemy fire during a bombing run. Rather than abort his attack, he continued on with his engine ablaze and delivered his ordnance on target. Once off target and over open water, the crew tried to bail out. Of the three men aboard the aircraft, Bush was the only survivor. He was eventually pulled from the sea by the submarine USS Finback, and was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
John McCain, the third generation of a legendary sea-going family, famously flew the A-4 Skyhawk from Yankee Station during the Vietnam War. After being shot down in October 1967, he was held as a prisoner of war for 5.5 years. Because his father was the senior naval officer in the Pacific, his captors, hoping to score a propaganda victory, offered McCain early release from captivity. Recognizing that accepting this offer would violate the Code of Conduct and break faith with his fellow prisoners, he rejected the offer, instead subjecting himself to additional years of punishment, torture, and isolation.
Thomas Hudner graduated from the Naval Academy in 1946. He initially served on surface ships but soon felt the pull of blue skies and applied for pilot training. He flew with VF-32* during the Korean War. On December 4, 1950, he launched from the deck of USS Leyte with Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African-American Naval Aviator, as his wingman for a dangerous mission near the Chosin Reservoir. During the attack, Brown’s aircraft was hit, forcing him to crash land on a snow-covered mountain. Laying aside concern for his personal safety, Hudner intentionally crash landed his aircraft in an effort to free Brown from his mangled cockpit. Though Hudner’s efforts proved unsuccessful, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
So what do Bush, McCain, and Hudner have to do with the fictional James Ryan? For those us who have the privilege of wearing Wings of Gold, these three men have everything to do with the young Private. Every time we don our flight gear and strap into our aircraft, we should be asking ourselves the same question Ryan asked that day at the cemetery. Each time we have an opportunity to represent our nation, our Navy, and Naval Aviation we should ask ourselves if our actions are upholding the rich historical foundation laid by the likes of Bush, McCain, and Hudner. We should ask if we’ve earned the right to wear the same wings and uniform as such great Americans.
This is a difficult question to ask; it’s even more difficult to maintain any pretense of humility while asking if our actions stack up to those who were awarded the Medal of Honor or elected to some of the highest offices in the land. However, if we only focus on the most public achievements each of these men are known for, we’ll miss the point of the question.
When Hudner chose to risk his life in an effort to save his squadronmate, he did so alone, without any regard for what accolades might come his way. McCain spent years alone, in fetid prison cells with only a strong sense of moral obligation to his fellow prisoners and his personal integrity to guide the difficult decision to refuse early release. When an eighteen-year old George H.W. Bush decided to join the Navy and fight for his nation, he made that decision alone — and it nearly cost him his life. After bailing out of his Avenger he spent nearly four hours floating, alone, in the Pacific Ocean, on the receiving end of Japanese strafing runs.
Each of these men, wearing the same Wings of Gold that today’s Naval Aviators wear, made difficult and incredibly personal decisions to put others ahead of themselves. The questions we should ask ourselves as the current aviation professionals and protectors of our heritage is whether or not we’re following their noble examples of selflessness and integrity.
Are we committed to the success of our squadron and our fellow aviators, even if that means we don’t receive recognition we feel is deserved? Do we make time to invest, mentor, and develop the young, talented Sailors who keep our flying machines airworthy? Do we recognize that our nation and our Navy depend on us to be masters of our craft and put in the preparation, study, and practice required to continually improve? Do we recognize and respect that our achievements are not actually ours as individuals, but instead those of a team whose players come from all walks of life, each having made a voluntary and deeply personal decision to serve? At the expense of sounding cliché, do we choose the hard rights over the easy wrongs? In our moments of solitude and honesty, how often can we answer “yes” to these questions?
These observations should not be seen as virtue signaling or boasting on my part. When I ask myself these questions, I conclude that I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded at upholding these standards during my 18 years in the Navy. Fortunately for all of us, real success and real growth can be achieved simply by asking the questions and then seeking ways to get to “yes.”
In the last 12 months the nation, and more specifically Naval Aviation, has lost three icons. These men made difficult decisions in some of the most trying circumstances imaginable. Mercifully, most of us will never be placed in such situations, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have ample opportunities to earn our place in a fraternity of greats. Earn it. Earn it every day with everything you do.