Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.
(Crystal Lake, IL) Austin James Bailey, Jr. was born on February 25, 1922 in Worchester, Massachusetts and raised in the town of Norwood, a few miles southwest of Boston. When Jim was about 11, unlike most kids his age, he began his life’s work; although it is unlikely that anyone (except Jim) knew it at the time. He started out making small balsa wood scale models of WWI and other aircraft of that era, then soon progressed to larger balsa, eventually flying tissue paper models.
In high school, he worked after school and during summers for E.W Wiggins Airways at the local airport. Jim worked on the flight line, in the stock room, as a mechanic’s helper, sweeping floors, and anything else he could do to stay close to airplanes and flying. After graduating in 1941, Jim went on to college, studying engineering at Northeastern University. His classes included the Primary Civilian Pilot Training Course, which Jim completed later that year. In 1942, he graduated from the Secondary Civilian Pilot Training Course at Colby College. WWII was in full swing by then, and Jim left college to put his training to work toward the war effort.
Jim had several service options, and he selected the US Marine Corps Aviation. This branch of service was comparatively new, but it impressed him as an up-and-coming, energetic branch of the USMC. He joined up and was sent to Marine flight school at Cherry Point, NC. After basic instruction Jim was assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 314 where he received combat flight instruction on the Vought F4U fighter designed for the South Pacific. It was quite an airplane. Its development started in 1938 under the guidance of the US Navy. The prototype was ready for testing in May 1940. It was well constructed and powered by a Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp, 18-cylinder radial engine. Soon after the first flight, the prototype became the first American single engine fighter to fly faster than 400 mph and had an excellent rate of climb as well. Some issues, however, delayed production. Many of these were quite technical and resolved during further testing. A big concern for the Marines was its light armament. The two .30 caliber and two .50 caliber machine guns were replaced by six .50 caliber guns, three on each wing. This greatly enhanced the ability of the fighter to shoot down enemy aircraft and to destroy ground targets. The other problem had to do with wing and landing gear components that made carrier deck landings very difficult. The Marines were not so concerned about this issue because they felt most of their operations would be land based. It was named the “Corsair’’ and released to the Marines at the end of 1942.
With its combat training completed, the VMF-314 and Jim Bailey headed to the Pacific and Midway Island, where the unit was based. Jim explains that Marine fighter units are really “based” at a variety of land airfields and deployed periodically to aircraft carriers as their missions dictate. By this time, most of the landing issues had been resolved, and he became very proficient at putting the Corsair down on a “flattop.” Jim flew many patrols, escort missions, and close air support sorties as part of his many different engagements. He saw action in the Solomon Island campaigns and even more at Okinawa. Jim had a great deal of respect for the Japanese pilots early in the war, but as casualties mounted they were not able to replace their most experienced and well-trained pilots. The Japanese Zero, he points out, remained a formidable aircraft. A pilot had to be very careful when engaging one. By the end of the war, Jim had received the Distinguished Flying Cross and several Air Medals, and the VMF 314 received the Navy and Presidential Unit Citations.
After his discharge from the Marines in 1945, Jim returned to Boston and re-entered Northeastern University. He completed the requirements for his degree in mechanical engineering and remained a Marine as part of the Reserve Marine Fighter Squadron 217 in Massachusetts. As the Korean War began in 1950, Jim Bailey returned to active duty as a Marine fighter pilot. He was assigned to VMF 312 and was reunited with the Corsair and upgraded to the higher performance F4U-4 variant. Korea was the first war where both sides had jet-powered aircraft as the major component of its flight arsenal. VMF 312, however, chose to fly the Corsair exclusively throughout the war.
VMF 312 was initially assigned to a land base, Wonsan AB in North Korea. Jim flew a variety of missions including air support for the 1st Marine Division at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. The unit was redeployed to the light carrier USS Bataan (CVL-29) for several months while its pilots flew escort and blockade missions. Further redeployments to land and carrier bases followed as did close air support missions including the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge. It was during one of these missions that Jim’s plane took several hits from ground fire. It was severely damaged and Jim was wounded. Always calm and thoughtful in stressful times, he kept his plane in the air long enough to reach the North Korean coastline and to execute a nighttime “controlled water landing under emergency conditions.” The water was very rough, cold, and close to enemy shore batteries. In these serious conditions, Jim’s Corsair came through for him one last time. It stayed afloat, nose up, long enough for Jim to radio his position, deploy his emergency raft, and extricate himself from the plane before it slid into sea. Only one of Jim’s emergency light beacons was working and he waved it over his head trying to get himself noticed by rescue aircraft. A US Army Grumman HU-16 Albatross was in the area and saw the beacon. Disregarding the big waves and nearby enemy artillery, the pilot could land near Jim and the crew was able to get him safely out of the raft and into the plane despite the conditions. Jim is safe! Story over. Well, not quite. The raft that helped save Jim’s life was now floating away. This was bad. It could attract other rescue planes to a dangerous area unnecessarily. Jim told the Air Force crew to use their side arms to sink the inflatable raft. Round after round was sent downrange toward the target and round after round failed to strike its mark. Tired, wounded, wet, and cold, a frustrated Jim Bailey took a pistol from a crewman and fired one shot at the raft. Down it went.
In 1952, fully recovered, Jim left active duty as a Marine Officer and combat fighter pilot. Jim’s Korean War decorations include the Purple Heart, a second Distinguished Flying Cross, and more Air Medals (bringing his total for both wars to seven). Following the war, Jim was hired as a test pilot for Honeywell, a leading contractor for aviation research and development for the Department of Defense and NASA. He moved his growing family to Minneapolis and began his remarkable post-war career in aviation. Space limitations prevent this author from describing or even attempting to list all the awards, published articles and other honors and accomplishments of Jim’s remarkable career. Here are just a few: (1) He served in the Marine reserves over 20 years and retired with the rank of Colonel. (2) During Jim’s 30-year career at Honeywell he designed and tested flight control and stabilization systems for a great number of advanced fighter and bomber aircraft, including the F-100, the F-101, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and (working with Neil Armstrong) the X-15. (3) Jim was the Project Pilot for testing and development of the Navy’s automatic guidance and approach system for carrier landings. (4) In December 1957, during a test flight of the F-101, Jim broke the then air speed record for piloted jet aircraft, becoming “the fastest man alive.” (5) He received the Octave Chanute Award in 1979, a national award that recognizes a person who made significant contributions to aviation.
Sadly, Jim lost Nancy, his beloved wife of over 70 years, not long ago. Jim remains close to his four children, 10 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, and 2 great-great grandchildren. Jim currently resides in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Honor Flight Chicago is proud to welcome Jim Bailey, American Hero, aboard its May 10, 2017 flight.