Lessons from book 'From Jeep Driver to General'

  • Published
  • By Col. Glen Downing
  • 81st Training Wing vice commander
Recently our nation and Air Force lost a great hero in Maj. Gen. Jesse M. Allen. General Allen's life not only represents the true spirit of our nation, it embodies the very history of our Air Force. I had the great fortune of befriending the general over the last two years and he became a mentor. He impressed three very important lessons on me.

First, if you can dream it, you can become it! General Allen was born in 1925. The youngest of 11 children, he was raised on a simple farm in Illinois during the depression. In 1943, as soon as he turned 18, General Allen enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Originally destined for a flying training class, he was quickly diverted due to the impending invasion of Europe. Private Allen became what we now call an individual augmentee and literally drove a jeep across Europe with Patton's 3rd Army.

Discharged in 1946 as a technical sergeant in the Army, he used the Montgomery G.I. Bill to finance a college education at the University of Illinois. Second Lt. Allen received a direct commission upon graduation in 1950 and finally got the pilot training opportunity he originally sought in 1943. General Allen went on to fly fighters for 19 months in Korea and command the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flying 87 combat missions over Vietnam. General Allen retired in 1976 as deputy chief of staff, operations and intelligence, U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

General Allen wrote, "I'm certain that there isn't another country in the world that could have provided the opportunities and training that carried me from jeep driver to fighter pilot to general." General Allen spent more than four years in combat and received nine enlisted and eight officer promotions. As a mentor to young airmen and officers in our Air Force, the general never hesitated to remind them they could become whatever they dreamed.

Second, the Air Force must take pride in its leadership role in promoting ethnic diversity. General Allen's earliest experiences in the military bore witness to poor treatment of African-American soldiers forced to live below decks on transport ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean on their way to England. He witnessed the lynching of African-American soldiers during the preparations for invasion. Most troubling of all, General Allen assisted with the clean up and recovery of the Dachau concentration camp.

These memories were never erased; however, General Allen always took great pride in the fact that while he commanded the Triple Nickel in combats over Vietnam, his wing operations officer was Col. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. Allen's first encounter with James was at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., in the mid-50s after then Major James was refused service in a base barber shop. Allen relished the fact that same person was now his boss. Flying as wingmen and working together during tough times forged a bond that lasted until General James' death in 1978.

General Allen took great joy in observing the Air Force of today where our diverse ethnicity has become something to celebrate rather than a barrier between people. He made a point to remind his fellow Airmen to be proud of the progress we've made as a service.

Lastly, our families are our greatest asset. I was fortunate enough to see firsthand the importance of family to General Allen. Twice I joined his larger family in celebrating his birthday with his two surviving sisters. I've met both of his adult children and seen the love and admiration they all share for each other. Even a remarkable military career couldn't get between the general and his family. As his first wife's health began to fail, he left the service nearly 10 years prior to mandatory retirement in order to care for her.

General Allen remarried later in life and shared his last 10 years with another wonderful woman who very appropriately was at his bedside with his two children and a host of close friends when he passed away on Sunday.

A fighter pilot and a leader to the very end, General Allen mentored and inspired many in his local community. He frequently shared his life's experiences with technical training Airmen and young officers at Keesler. The lessons he taught and the life he lived are an example to all Airmen everywhere.