Voices of Valor: Jim Cross

May 10, 2015

By Mary Drennon
May 10, 2015
Originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald

Residing quietly in the Gatesville community is a man who has lived an incredibly large life: retired Brig. Gen. James U. Cross. (His friends call him Jim.) The 90-year-old native and former farm boy from Andalusia, Alabama, had no idea he would grow up and one day pilot Air Force One for President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Cross had just graduated from high school when he was drafted, willingly and after passing the necessary tests, into what was then the Army Air Corps, (later to become U.S. Air Force) joining the air cadet training program. He was just 19 when he graduated.

"I got my pilot’s license the day I got my commission," Cross said.

As a 2nd lieutenant, Cross went to Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin before being sent to the Far East in the China-Burma-India Theater. At the controls of a C-46 cargo plane — despite his wish to be a fighter pilot — he routinely flew over the "Hump," delivering critical supplies over the Himalayas, a route nicknamed the "Aluminum Trail" for the remains of crashed planes scattered across the mountain range.

"I didn't have much experience; I just kept on going," he said. It turned out to be invaluable experience.

Cross went back home to Alabama as a 1st lieutenant in 1946, released from active duty. He went to college until he was recalled in 1948, during the Berlin Airlift. It was the onset of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had closed off Germany, cutting critical supply routes. The only way to get supplies in was by air.

Fully expecting that’s where he would go, he was sent instead to the Southeast Pacific to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines to join the 6200th Troop Carrier Squadron. He spent the next three years flying throughout the Philippines, New Guinea, Guadalcanal, Borneo and Indonesia. Cross was then transferred to Gooseberry, Labrador in Canada, gaining more transport experience in a two-engine SA-16, a twin-engine "flying boat."

Climbing up the ladder

By the time he got his permanent commission in 1952, he was a captain. He was reassigned to Delaware and ended up flying across the Atlantic to places such as Germany, France, Tripoli, Libya and Iraq. When he was promoted to major he was in Washington, D.C., receiving the prestigious assignment of flying then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson in a JetStar across the country and in and out of LBJ’s ranch near Stonewall.

When Johnson became president, he personally selected Cross to be his pilot. Calling his service to the president, "very honorable," and describing LBJ as "tough," the assignment would lead to a longtime relationship with LBJ, and his wife, Lady Bird.

Quick, busy trip to Vietnam

Cross was diverted for a short time from his duties to Ton Son Nhat, Vietnam, where he flew 17 reconnaissance missions in three months. He rose from colonel to the rank of one-star general, thanks to Johnson’s sway. During his tenure serving the president, he also was assigned as director of the White House military office, Armed Forces aide and military assistant.

For the last five months of Johnson’s presidency, Cross didn’t fly for the president. Instead (again, thanks to Johnson), he was sent to Bergstrom, where for two years he served as base commander.

"President Johnson wanted me close by," Cross said.

Cross stayed at Bergstrom until his retirement in 1971, having served a total of 28 years. Afterward he worked a variety of jobs, even serving as Johnson’s private pilot. He ended up a rancher in Central Texas. His wife, the former Marie Campbell, had been by his side since they married in 1945. She passed away after 64 years.

Cross remains friends with the Johnson family. He attended LBJ’s funeral, presenting the folded flag to Mrs. Johnson. He returned in 2010 for a special ceremony, when Johnson’s JetStar was moved to the ranch.

He later penned his memoirs, which were published as "Around the World with LBJ." He preferred his own original title, "Angel is Airborne" (Angel being the code name for Air Force One, he said). The book is chock-full of memories, photos and correspondence of his life.

"I was humbled and honored to serve in military service, to serve the president and pilot Air Force One," he said.