Death of a Colonel

Nov. 1, 1957

We were a few minutes late for the funeral. It was a long drive from our Maryland home and the kids had to be started off to school before we could leave. I had not spoken during the trip through the crushing Washington morning traffic and my wife respected my silence.

An October mist swirled bleakly around the crowded gravestones of Arlington National Cemetery. But just as we arrived the sun burned through, touching with gold the towering steeple atop the Fort Myer chapel.

The chapel was damp and chilly, austerely interdenominational. The Requiem Mass had begun and above the plaintive chords of the organ one could hear snatches of priestly Latin and the murmured responses of the acolyte.

“Requiescat in pace.”


Among the pallbearers it was easy to spot the silver thatch of Gen. Nathan F. Twining, still new in his job as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The dead officer had served General Twining as Special Assistant during his four years as Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

The sermon was brief, in the Roman Catholic tradition. As full military honors demanded, a band and honor guard led the funeral procession in slow cadence to the freshly dug grave on a wooded slope. Close by lay the grave of Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, former Air Force Chief of Staff.

Aircraft from nearby National Airport droned overhead as three volleys rang out and the mournful notes of “Taps” sounded through the trees.

Colonel Leo Francis Paul, United States Air Force, 3822A, had stood his last formation.

* * *

Pat Paul was my friend. He lost his life in the crash of a C-47 which went down near Washington, D.C., just a few miles away from my home on October 2. He was exactly two weeks from his forty-second birthday. It was what the Air Force calls “a routine training mission.”

Partly I am writing this because Pat was my friend. But mostly I am writing it because to me he exemplified the Air Force officer at his best—a brilliant, dedicated, practical visionary with the highest sense of duty I have ever encountered. His death was a great personal loss to his family and to his friends. Beyond that, it was an even greater loss to the Air Force which he loved and to the nation which he served so selflessly.

* * *

The official records give only the bare outline of a man’s life. But you can read between the lines—if the man was your friend.

“Born 16 Oct 1915, Wilton Junction, Iowa.” A rural boyhood in the finest farming country in the world, where the black loam runs deep and rich as butter. Fishing for channel cat in the brown streams, and swimming there, too, without worrying about a bathing suit. Walking barefoot in the thick dust of a back road. Playing cow-pasture baseball. Threshing oats and shucking corn. Driving the horse that pulls the laden hay-hook into the gaping barn mow.

“Permanent Address: 410 Iowa Avenue, Iowa City, Iowa.” The move to “town” after Dad lost an arm in a corn-picker. Shady streets in a quiet university city. Football practice in a cavernous stadium. Phi Beta Kappa. An ROTC commission, second lieutenant, Infantry, United States Army Reserve, Commencement, June, 1936.

A year’s active duty with the Civilian Conservation Corps. A stint as sales manager for a fountain pen company. World War II and active duty.

* * *

Pat started flying comparatively late in his military career. He entered flying training in May 1942 as a first lieutenant. Like thousands of others, he won his wings at Randolph Field (in January 1943) and was on his way to the South Pacific in May.

With the 5th Air Force he logged 706 hours on 209 combat missions, and picked up three Distinguished Flying Crosses, an Air Medal, a Bronze Star, and two Purple hearts, in seven campaigns. His last wound was sustained in the Philippines and was severe enough to send him back to the States in February 1945.

His last two assignments were an indication of the high regard held for the quality of his staff work—Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff, Plans and Operations, SHAPE, Paris, 1950-1953; Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff, USAF, 1953-1957. At the time of his death he was a student at the National War College, and the nation’s highest military school, an indication in itself that he was earmarked as a future top Air Force leader.

* * *

Why am I bothering to set all this down? Pat Paul would have been the first to say, “Sing no sad songs for me.” But one can talk a bit about the things Pat believed in, the things which made him tick, in the hope that the discussion may help shape the career of a future Pat Paul and that the nation may thereby be the richer.

Above all, Pat Paul loved his country. Not in a narrow, chauvinistic sense, for the chinks in our democracy irritated him. But he believed passionately in the innate dignity of the human spirit and saw America, with all its faults, as the finest, even though imperfect, reflection of that dignity. It was a love that colored his every act and that formed the basis for the furious abandon with which he hurled himself into every task which came his way.

Pat Paul loved his Air Force. He saw it as the ultimate military expression of American national policy, both sword and shield of the Free World. Yet, his was not a selfish, parochial love. He freely acknowledged and would vehemently defend the viewpoint of a sister service whenever that viewpoint appeared to have the force of logic and justice on its side.

Pat Paul loved flying. He was an excellent pilot. But he never allowed the romance of flight to blind him to the bitter realities of the technological revolution. He was an officer first, a pilot second, and a “wild blue yonder fly-boy” in no sense of the term. He understood the need for basic research, he could visualize the coming age of missiles with no disquieting fears of technological unemployment. At the same time, he saw clearly the need for force-in-being and realized that the transition from manned aircraft to missiles would be a long, expensive and, at times, unsettling proposition.

Pat was a true professional. He knew his trade and could handle the tools of it with a sureness born of complete self-confidence. Yet, he was never too busy to lend a helping hand to those whose lesser competence made them less sure of themselves.

He was articulate. He had the rare ability to convey his beliefs in a manner which carried conviction, whether writing or speaking. He rightly fled (and this is a characteristic far too uncommon in the military), that the ability to express oneself clearly, concisely, and convincingly was as essential to his profession as an understanding of strategy and tactics.

Pat was tireless, as only a dedicated man can be. He drove himself unsparingly, often on jobs which technically were none of his business but to the success of which his contributions were indispensable. Few persons, even those with whom he worked daily, were aware of the total extent of his activity in pursuit of what he thought was right and needed.

Undoubtedly these qualities are combined in many men. But of all the Air Force officers whom I have known none combined them so dramatically as Pat Paul.

Lest I leave the impression that he was a stuffed-shirt paragon of all the virtues, let me add that he was a fast man with a quip, and could play with the same concentration he devoted to his work. I remember a party in Pat’s honor, given on the eve of his entrance into the National War College in September. We gagged up some presents around the theme of “back to school” and one of my last and fondest memories of Pat is in a size 48 sweatshirt, with National War College stenciled across the chest, just above a huge picture of an aircraft carrier.

A courageous guy, Pat Paul, of a type vividly portrayed in a poetic essay by AFA’s own Gill Robb Wilson, past president of the Air Force Association, editor and publisher of Flying Magazine. It is called “Courage” and appears in Gill Robb’s latest book, “The Airman’s World”:

God loves the brave. At my mother’s knee

I learned it from the Book of Remembrance. To serve

“with all thy heart and all thy mind and all

thy soul,” one must go into the high places to hear

voices; one must search lands of new promise;

one must face the unknown with confident heart;

one must battle giants and one must be ready

to die in the very dawn of a brighter day …

The poets and minstrels are at a loss

to sing our sagas. There have been no high casements

From which to follow our questing;

no battlements from which to mark our strivings.

The airman forges the fates in a vast loneliness.

The horizons swallow him.

His spoor is a flick of light in the sun

or a murmur of overtone in the wind.

And when the people send us forth to war,

there drifts down from the misty sky somewhere

the flotsam and jetsam

that hints of the living or the dead,

the victor or the vanquished—

and that is all. God, who loves the brave,

is alone with the brave.

The kind of bravery Pat Paul typified was expressed in a different way by his former boss, General Twining, in a speech to Air Force Academy cadets last winter. He had been discussing the tradition of courage, pointing out that there were many kinds, not the least of which he described as follows:

“There is yet another kind of courage that is perhaps even more rare. This could be called by many names; moral courage—the courage of one’s convictions. It is the determination to hold to one’s principles in the face of ridicule and strife … Acts of moral courage are, in a way, even more impressive that flying exploits of sheer physical courage …”

General Twining’s speech then went on to outline the qualities the Air Force needs in its future officers:

“A broad understanding of national and international problems above and beyond Air Force problems will be required of those who must convince our national leaders of the nation’s requirement for airpower. Conviction does not follow assertion. It comes first from the acquisition of that kind of confidence that educated men of character inspire in each other. Second, it comes from the ability to explain and convince. This ability must be based on a broad knowledge of the total picture.

“Airmen have developed a motto which is, in essence, this: ‘To proceed unhampered by tradition.’ It was the recognized need to break away from traditional concepts and methods of warfare that led Douhet, Mitchell, and Arnold into their lifelong battles against the established order. In other words—what’s good today may not be good tomorrow. We must fight the tendency to hang on too long to favorite weapons and tactics.

“As long as man is inventive enough to produce new equipment of combat utility, there must be other men who are quick to foresee its potential, and who are able to develop new concepts for its most effective use in the defense of our nation.

“We are in the midst of a great revolution in weapons. But perhaps the greatest revolution of all has come about as a result of airmen who created change, and then adapted themselves to this change. The ability to do this in the future may determine how well we can achieve our most important national goal—which is peace—real security/”

The author of this speech might well have been writing about himself.

For Pat Paul wrote it.