Air Force Featured Stories

Korean War Veteran, former PACAF commander, shares his experiences to empower Airmen

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nick Wilson
  • Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs

The 75th Anniversary of the United States Air Force is an occasion for reflection. One Airman who played a critical role in the Air Force’s rich history is retired Lt. Gen. James D. Hughes, a former commander-in-chief of Pacific Air Forces (CINCPACAF) from June 1978 to June 1981.

Born in Balmville, New York on July 7, 1922, Hughes just celebrated his centennial birthday.

As the son of a World War I infantryman, Hughes grew up with the ideals of defending the homeland. From humble beginnings, his youthful years served as the foundation into a lifetime of service, dedication and leadership.

“My father's experience with the military caused me to follow in his steps,” Hughes said. “He desired to stay in the military even after World War II and stayed on active duty through lieutenant colonel. I grew up with the military staring me in the face just about every day.”

Hughes graduated from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1946.

Shortly after joining the U.S. Army Air Corps, Hughes would partake in a landmark change within the U.S. military. Under the National Defense Act of 1947, the U.S. Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. War Department was renamed to the U.S. Department of Defense.

“The mission did not change,” Hughes said. “To my recollection, there was not a change to everyday life. It took some time to change uniforms from the Army Pinks and Greens to the Air Force Blues.”

In the newly established Air Force, Hughes soon found himself serving in the Pacific Theater where he was assigned to the 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing, Itazuke Air Base in Kyushu, Japan. During his tour in Japan, Hughes was among the first fighter pilots to fly combat missions during the early stages of the Korean War in 1950.

“In June 1950, late in the afternoon, we had a visit from higher headquarters, and we needed to provide a flight for a mission in Korea,” Hughes said. “There were four of us that finally got together, and our mission was to pick up a load of Korean fighter pilots to bring them back to train them for combat.”

Hughes and his fellow pilots escorted a C-47D Skytrain with 13 pilots on board from Suwon, South Korea, to Itzuke, Japan.

“When we came back, I was met by the crew chief and he said, ‘you're supposed to go to intelligence and you're not telling anybody where you were or what you did,’ and so forth,” Hughes said. “The next day we were in the war. So that was the beginning of it.”

During the Korean War, Hughes flew both the P-51 Mustang and F-80 Shooting Star. According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the Shooting Star was the first American aircraft to exceed 500 miles per hour in flight and the first U.S. Air Force jet used in combat. Initially crafted as a high-altitude interceptor, the F-80 was utilized as a fighter-bomber and photo reconnaissance aircraft during the Korean War.

“When I finished my combat tour, I had flown 101 combat missions, but there’s one I’ll never forget,” Hughes said. “We had a large communist convoy that was bottled up, and the first and last vehicles were burning so we worked on the middle.”

Hughes engaged the convoy multiple times to gain mission success.

“I picked a tank, went in and missed with the first rockets I fired,” Hughes recounted. “I went around and came back down the same flightpath after the same target.”

Hughes explained how his basic mistake as a young pilot caused him to take a hit from enemies on the ground.

“I was nailed by a 37-millimeter and the forward part; it shot out the windscreen and gave me a face full of glass,” Hughes said. “Noisy ride home – got the airplane back and flew the next day.”

Hughes was awarded the Purple Heart for the wounds he received in combat that day.

“Youthful exuberance and inexperience led me to qualify for the Medal,” Hughes said. “Wearing the medal was a constant reminder of how lucky I was.”

After retirement, with a deep understanding of the importance and meaning of the Purple Heart to veterans and their families, Hughes and three colleagues formed the Genesis Group to champion the cause for the recognition of Purple Heart recipients. In 2006, their efforts were realized when the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor was established in New Windsor, New York.

“It was my duty and my honored privilege, to present Purple Hearts to our wounded veterans,” Hughes said. “Unfortunately, too many of them were presented posthumously to their families. Those were hard ones.”

Following his tour in Korea, from 1951 to 1957, Hughes’ career as a fighter pilot and staff officer included a variety of fighter pilot assignments at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina; Langley Air Force Base, Virginia; Royal Air Force Station Wethersfield, United Kingdom; and Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Arlington, Virginia.

In 1957, Hughes was handpicked to serve as the military aide to then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon. In 1958, he accompanied Nixon and his wife on the historical trip to Caracas, Venezuela where the vice president’s motorcade was attacked by a violent mob. In 1969, Hughes would again serve in the White House, this time as the military assistant to President Richard M. Nixon.

After his first tour in the White House, in 1962 Hughes volunteered for duty in Vietnam where he served as an advisor and an instructor of close air support tactics to Vietnamese fighter pilots. Later, Hughes became the vice commander of the 7/13th Air Force at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, and became commander when that unit was reorganized as Detachment 7, 13th Air Force, in March 1973. Today, the 7th Air Force remains a Numbered Air Force unit under PACAF, now located at Osan Air Base, South Korea, while the 13th Air Force was inactivated in 2012.

As Hughes’ Air Force career continued, he was selected to command the 9th Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, followed by the 12th Air Force, at Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas, and then finally PACAF. 

As a leader, Hughes understood the importance of caring for people.

“You can have all the sophisticated, modern and complex equipment in the world, but unless the people operating and maintaining them are adequately cared for, you’re not going to get the most out of the equipment,” Hughes said.

Hughes also understood the value of a strong NCO corps.

“(They) are where it all comes together,” Hughes said. “They provide a link between enlisted and officers.”

According to Hughes, one of the most meaningful military awards he received was the Order of the Sword, which is the highest award given by NCOs.

“To be awarded the Order of the Sword by such an outstanding group of professionals was truly an honor,” Hughes exclaimed.

Hughes had the opportunity to fly a wide range of aircraft throughout his career, including the P-47 Thunderbolt, the P-51 Mustang, the F-80 Shooting Star, the F-100 Super Sabre and the F4 Phantom. He also flew early model F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons as they were integrated into his commands.

“My overall favorite would be the P-51,” Hughes said. “It was a fighter pilot’s airplane (with a) single-seat, powerful engine, speed (and) maneuverability.”

Days before his retirement from PACAF, Hughes’ final flight as a fighter pilot was in the F-4 Phantom. “If there had to be a last flight, I’m delighted it was a jet fighter from PACAF,” Hughes said.

Hughes went on the speak about the growing importance of PACAF.

“PACAF is certainly a major player in national security because of the vast area and number of countries it covers. Faced with an aggressive China and sensitive support program for the ongoing war in support of Ukraine, the importance of PACAF has certainly grown since I was commander.”

Looking back in terms of the Air Force’s 75th Anniversary, Hughes shared final thoughts on if he would go back in time and do it all again.

“Thirty-nine years of military service is a long time, but it went by awfully fast,” Hughes said. “Where else can anyone serve the country, in so honorable a profession, and in the company of some of the most able and dedicated men and women our country has to offer? So yes! I’d do it all again — in a minute!”