Air Force Featured Stories

An Enduring Legacy: Sabu Dastagir, Hollywood actor turned American Airman

  • Published
  • By The Honorable Ravi Chaudhary
  • Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Energy, Installations, and Environment

Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a time when we reflect on the boundless tapestry of cultures across our nation and celebrate the inspiring contributions of Americans to our history. I’d like to share the story of an American Airman whose story I learned about later in my career but wish I had known a lot earlier.

Sabu Dastagir was an Indian American actor who was best known for his works in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. He was born in 1924 in Mysore, India, and was discovered by a producer at the age of 13. Known as “Sabu,” he starred in film roles such as "The Thief of Baghdad” and Rudyard Kipling’s "The Jungle Book." He eventually earned his U.S. citizenship, and in 1960 Sabu was inducted into the Hollywood “Walk of Fame.”

Like other Hollywood actors during World War II, such as Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, Sabu chose to enlist in the Army Air Forces. He served as a tail gunner, primarily in the Pacific Theater with the 370th Bomb Squadron, part of the 307th Bomb Group. During this period, Cpl. Dastagir flew dozens of combat missions. For his valor, he was awarded five air medals, as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross with “Valor,” one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon an Airman.

Tragically, Dastagir passed away in 1963 at the age of 40. With the passing of so many from the "Greatest Generation,” many of their individual stories of bravery have faded from memory. I came upon Sabu’s story later in my Air Force career. I have always wondered why I had never heard or read more about him. Looking back, I wish I had had learned of him much sooner. As an Indian American, I sought out service in the Air Force early in life, wanting to become a pilot. Many in my community considered my pathway as non-traditional. Often there was an expectation that I would be a physician or lawyer, and folks balked at my desire to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. If only they had known of Sabu’s story of valor, they might have viewed my aspirations in a different light!

Luckily, I had parents and teachers who encouraged me to chase my dreams, so I did. Were there challenges? Absolutely. There have always been naysayers preferring to put me in a box that suits traditional biases. Today, I find the term non-traditional less useful to Airmen and Guardians serving or even candidates considering service. Our country’s next Greatest Generation “dreams in extreme” every day and as our nation becomes more diverse, more and more AANHPIs are stepping up, raising their right hand and joining the long blue line.

But to know Sabu’s story, to be armed with his legacy of valor every day, is a game changer. When you hear the stories of people you can identify with, suddenly, even the toughest of challenges become possible. In my case, it took a couple of tries to be accepted into the Air Force Academy. I believe that’s the enduring legacy of trailblazers like Sabu Dastagir—they give us the courage to believe in ourselves, keep trying and persevere despite the challenges we face.

In 2008, I had the chance to fly into Afghanistan with a diverse  C-17 Globemaster III crew. We hailed from all walks of life—Japanese American, Black, White, Christian, Hindu, you name it. During a stopover in Europe, we had the chance to interact with citizens in a local pub. One citizen approached us and remarked that he found it hard to believe that we could function as a crew with so many cultural differences. He thought the aircraft would eventually crash. Of course, my crew reacted in unison, "That is what makes America so strong!” Airmen and Guardians represent the full range of cultures across our country. Their presence continually broadcasts that the true strength of our nation doesn’t entirely rest with the example of our power but rather the power of our example.

Ultimately, stories matter. Representation matters. That’s why I’m proud to unveil the little-known story of Sgt. Sabu Dastagir, an American Airman. Had I known his story of valor when I was younger, it probably would have made applying to the academy seem a little less daunting. That's the power of an Airman's legacy and its impact on future generations. I recently attended the graduation of our newest trainees at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. After watching the inspiring pass-in review, I will rest easy knowing that, armed with Sabu’s legacy, our next Greatest Generation is ready to meet the challenges of the future.

That’s what makes America strong and resilient. Let us remember all Airmen and Guardians, past, present and future. We are brash and sometimes unpolished, bold by birthright, and always ready to break boundaries—it’s in our DNA as a service and legacy as Airmen. We are the best in the world at what we do. One Team, One Fight, none more important than another, and always ready to Flight, Fight and Win!