Author, USAF pilot shares stories of local heroes

Published 1:55 pm Friday, November 15, 2013

Though patriotism usually inspires images of larger-than-life heroes and tales of courage, the subjects of those stories can sometimes be found right in our own backyards.

When retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Lawrence set out to compile a collection of such stories, he had no idea that they would inevitably find him instead.

“When people found out I was writing a book, local heroes in the area were more than happy to give me information,” Lawrence said. “I actually looked for stories first and, once word got around, people came to me. I just compiled it and put it together and I wound up with 62 of them.”

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And that message — that heroes very often walk among us — was the ultimate takeaway Thursday as Lawrence, who penned “American Veterans: Their Stories of Service and Valor,” spoke to an auditorium filled with students and visitors in the Wendell Mitchell Conference Center on the LBW Community College campus.

Lawrence is no stranger to spectacle himself, however.

He was a command pilot with more than 5,800 hours of flying time over a 27-year career, and he flew as both an instructor and as a check pilot around the world.

In addition, he was a co-holder of the world record for non-stop flight time in a C-130 military transport aircraft for several years — the record, for the curious, was 29.7 consecutive hours, set in November of 1979.

A year later, he would participate in the attempted rescue of American hostages held in Iran, and later flew a support mission in an effort to free AP journalist Terry Anderson from Beirut during the decade-long Lebanon hostage crisis.

And yet, despite these things, Lawrence decided to relay the tales of others.

And though those stories were oftentimes stranger than fiction — such as a story of a soldier who once parachuted onto a spooked horse, which then inadvertently aided in his safe (feet-first) reunion with the ground — they were opportunities that Lawrence couldn’t pass up.

“All of the stories were extremely fascinating,” Lawrence said. “When you have the opportunity to go and meet with a hero like (Medal of Honor-winning WWII pilot) Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot — the man was just dripping with history — I was kind of in awe, and humbled just to be there.”

Lawrence also recounted the stories of lesser-known yet equally important local heroes, including Robert Bennett, a P-51 Fighter Pilot from McKenzie, or Lee Jack Lowery, a WWII marine turret gunner from Brushy Creek.

Lawrence admitted that the heroes of yesteryear were often faced with more circumstances and fewer choices regarding their military service.

But despite the sweeping changes that the military has undergone since Lawrence entered the service in 1969, he said that the core of what makes a soldier remains intact.

“I think there are fewer people serving — it’s less than one half of 1percent of people in uniform today, and in World War II there was over 11 percent,” Lawrence said. “The ones that go in and serve are highly trained and motivated and they do a great job. By and large, I think people are just as patriotic now as they were then.”

Lawrence offered words of encouragement to the student body.

“Doing well in school is not just important — it’s critical,” Lawrence said. “All of you here are doing the right thing, so don’t stop. In fact, education is the one thing you can’t have enough of.”