Remembering General James “Jim” Cross

Jul 11, 2015

The LBJ Presidential Library and the Johnson Family Remember
General James "Jim" Cross
1925 - 2015

Brigadier General James Underwood "Jim" Cross, U. S. Air Force (Retired), of Gatesville, Texas, who was the chief Air Force One pilot and official military aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, died Saturday, July 11, 2015 in Gatesville. He was 90 years old. Cross shared his memories of years with President Johnson in his 2008 book, Around the World with LBJ: My Wild Ride as Air Force One Pilot, White House Aide, and Personal Confidant, written with journalists Denise Gamino and Gary Rice.

Lyndon Nugent, Lyndon Johnson’s grandson and a pilot, was a close, personal friend of Cross. "Today America, the United States Army, the United States Air Force, and the family of Lyndon Johnson mourn the passing of James U. ("Jim") Cross, Brigadier General, United States Air Force."

Cross was trained as a pilot by the U. S. Army and commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces in November 1944. He began his military career as a storied “Hump” pilot, flying C-46 heavy transport aircraft over the treacherous Himalayas in World War II. After joining the Air Force Reserve in 1946, he was recalled to active duty in 1948 and served at military bases in the Philippines, South Carolina, Newfoundland, and Delaware. Cross was sent to Washington, D.C., in 1958, where he served as a pilot for the U.S. Air Force’s Special Air Mission unit that flies the president and other dignitaries. In 1961, Vice President Lyndon Johnson chose Cross to be his regular pilot.

On February 23, 1962, Cross flew Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was chairman of the National Space Council, to Grand Turk Island, where Project Mercury astronaut Colonel John Glenn had splashed down after completing the first American orbit of Earth. On the flight back to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, Colonel Glenn joined Cross in the JetStar cockpit.

Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, President Johnson requested that Cross become qualified to fly a Boeing 707, the main presidential aircraft. Cross qualified to pilot the 707 in May 1964, and then served as Air Force One co-pilot for a year with Colonel James Swindal, who had been President Kennedy’s personal pilot. In 1965, Cross was promoted by President Johnson to chief Air Force One pilot as well as Armed Forces Aide in the White House. He worked both full-time jobs from 1965 to 1968, constantly changing from Air Force uniform to White House business suit as the occasion warranted.

Cross described President Johnson as the "ultimate back seat pilot." He depicted his job this way: "I bucked the inviolate military chain of command to fly where and when he wanted. Protocol, rules, and red tape couldn’t stop us. We did it his way, obstacles be damned. He wasn’t always the most pleasant personality to be around, but he was the best co-pilot in adventure anyone could ever have had."

While serving as Air Force One pilot for President Johnson, Cross’s other hectic job as the White House military aide put him in charge of supervising the President’s transportation fleet; running the White House Mess; managing the President’s emergency spending fund; supervising Camp David, the presidential mountain retreat in Maryland; hiring White House social aides; helping the President with his wardrobe; responding to letters from servicemen in Vietnam; and writing condolence letters to the families of soldiers who died in that war.

One of the journeys Cross shared with President Johnson made history – an around-the-world trip in the days before Christmas 1967. In his book, Around the World with LBJ, Cross said President Johnson told him in mid-December that Christmas would be quiet, something Cross never quite believed. His premonition was correct: that Christmas season Cross flew President Johnson 26,959 miles and landed in seven countries and territories, including a stop to visit U.S. troops in Vietnam and another stop to meet with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. The presidential entourage and a separate plane for the press traveled around the world in four-and-a-half days, and Johnson became the first president to circumnavigate the globe. The itinerary was impromptu, without a definite plan.

Cross’s last official duty for President Johnson was very personal and somber. When the former President died of a heart attack on Jan. 22, 1973, official protocol called for an active-duty military officer to serve as escort for Mrs. Johnson to all funeral services and programs. Mrs. Johnson wanted a person she knew and trusted by her side and requested that the then-retired Cross be her escort. Fortunately, Cross still fit into his Air Force uniform. Mrs. Johnson held Cross’s steady arm for services at the LBJ Presidential Library, at the U.S. Capitol and funeral church in Washington, D. C., and at the burial at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas.

To Lyndon Nugent, Cross was part of the Johnson family. "Jim Cross was Lyndon Johnson’s confidant at the beginning of his administration, and he was Lady Bird Johnson’s pillar of strength when Lyndon Johnson was laid to rest. In the years since he has remained one of the closest friends the Johnson family and Johnson Library have ever had. A great leader to those privileged to serve with him, a great father to his family, and a great friend to all who had the privilege to know him, Jim Cross is going to be sorely missed."

After serving the president, Cross was promoted to Brigadier General and became Commander of the 75th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Bergstrom Air Force Base, Austin, Texas. His military decorations include the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross (United States,) Air Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with oak leaf cluster, and the Presidential Service Badge.

In 2010, Cross helped arrange for one of the Lockheed JetStar planes formerly used to transport President Johnson’s family from the White House to his Texas ranch to be refurbished and relocated to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The plane, now on permanent display, was unveiled in honor of what would have been the president’s 102nd birthday on Aug. 27 that year.

James Underwood Cross was born in Andalusia, Alabama, on April 25, 1925, and went by the name Underwood until the Air Force forced him to use his first name. He attended Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) for two years before being recalled to active duty in the U. S. Air Force.

Cross is survived by three children and their families: Jeanie (Bill) Stark of Round Rock, Texas; Joanie (Doug) MacLean of Huntington Beach, California; John (Sherry) Cross of Liberty Hill, Texas; six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. His eldest daughter, June Marie Cross Rainwater, wife of David Rainwater, passed away in 2001. A granddaughter, Chloe Ann Cross, died in 2006.

Services will be under the direction of Scott’s Funeral Home in Gatesville, Texas. Cross will be buried in Alabama next to his wife, Marie Campbell Cross, who passed away in February 2010.

[Col. James Cross poses outside Air Force One. Taken May 17, 1966 in Chicago, Illinois. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto, C1952-3. - Download]

[President Lyndon B. Johnson and Col. James Cross in the Air Force One cockpit en route to Washington, D.C. after a trip to Germany. Taken on April 26, 1967. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto, C5164-31a. - Download]

[President Lyndon B. Johnson and Col. James Cross in the Air Force One cockpit en route to Washington, D.C. after a trip to Germany. Taken on April 26, 1967. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto, A4046-36a. - Download]

[Col. James Cross and President Lyndon B. Johnson speak on the airport tarmac at the March Air Force Base in California. Taken on April 18, 1968. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto, C9604-10a. - Download]

[Major James Cross and President Lyndon B. Johnson at the announcement of Major Cross’ appointment of military aide to President Johnson. Taken July 11, 1965 on the front lawn of the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, Texas. LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe, 34784-7. - Download]

[Col. James Cross in the cockpit awaiting departure from the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, Texas. Background L-R: Lucius Battle, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Sec. Dean Rusk. Taken January 7, 1968. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto, A5379-10a. - Download]

[Kim, one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's beagles, looks over the shoulder of Col. James Cross in the Air Force One cockpit. Taken on November 19, 1966. LBJ Library photo by Kevin Smith, 3929-4a - Download]

[President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, boards plane as Col. James Cross looks on. Taken on April 7, 1966 at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe, 1670-31. - Download]

[Col. James Cross and President Lyndon B. Johnson meet at The White House. Taken April 29, 1968. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto, A6163-10. - Download]

[James Cross (far-left) at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s burial service at the Johnson Family Cemetery at the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, Texas. L-R: James Cross, Luci Johnson Nugent (hands on son Patrick's shoulders), Lady Bird Johnson, Lynda Johnson Robb, and Chuck Robb (holding daughter Lucinda). Taken January 25, 1973. LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe, D4925-17. - Download]