A Century of Courage

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tyler Catanach
  • 150th Special Operations Wing

World War II veteran, retired Maj. James “Jim” Stark, was greeted by 150th Special Operations Wing members earlier this week to celebrate his 100th birthday on March 29, 2024. 

Born March 29, 1924 Stark grew up in Tucumcari, New Mexico where he went on to graduate from Tucumcari High School in 1941. He later joined the Army Air Corps as a pilot and left for Chico, California where he went to the Chico Army Air Field for his flight training where he initially learned to fly in a PT-13 Stearman.

“We switched over to fighter school, on my birthday, March 29th,” said Stark. “We flew in the P-39 Airacobra and the P-63 Kingcobra before we switched over to the P-38 Lightning. We flew about 30 hours in them before we went overseas and the P-38 is what we flew while we were in Europe.”

Stark arrived in England in November 1944 and moved to Paris on December 15th.

“It was a lot of hurry up and wait at the time,” said Stark, “We were stuck in Paris during the Battle of the Bulge but we ended up moving to Florennes in Belgium on New Year's Eve. We got to our air field and it was under bombardment from V-1 flying bombs. It felt like every three or four minutes one of those buzz bombs would be hitting.”

The bombs kept coming for hours, said Stark. They stopped later that night and that ended up being one of the last major efforts from the Luftwaffe.

Stark ended up flying 24 missions out of Belgium under the 9th Air Force, largely consisting of escorting B-26, short range bombers from the 9th Air Force. He also contributed with strafing runs and bomb support missions.

On April 10, 1944, Stark flew his 25th, 26th, and 27th missions out of Florennes; these were his last flights out of Belgium.

“April 10, we had three missions that day,” said Stark. “The first was escorting Martin B-26 Marauders down to southern Germany,” said Stark. “The second mission we all had one 250lb bomb and we were just looking for targets of opportunity.”

While looking for targets in their second mission, the ground controllers contacted Starks flight commander letting them know about a roadblock that was limiting U.S. soldiers' abilities to advance. Stark and the P-38s advanced on the marked position and successfully destroyed the roadblock before returning back to base.

“After we landed from the second mission, we had an intelligence briefing and they said, ‘Leave your parachutes on the plane, you're going on a third mission,’” said Stark. “We were sent out on a strafing mission to hit the Germans who were hiding in the forest all day, hiding from the Air Force.” 

Stark traveled 40 miles NorthEast of Cologne, Germany, when he and his group spotted columns of trucks and half track vehicles coming out of the woods. They began their strafing runs.

“You normally only want to do two runs, preferably one, so you can hit them and get out of there before they can organize and get ready for you coming again, but we went out for three runs that day,” said Stark. “On my third run, they hit the left engine of my P-38, it instantly went up in flames and smoke.”

After being hit Stark began the process of ejecting from the plane by opening the top canopy. Smoke was filling the cabin and he had to act quickly before the plane went down.

“To this day I’m not sure exactly what happened but I got out,” said Stark. “When I landed I was surrounded by the Germans who we had just done runs against, I became a Prisoner of war for the next five days.”

He escaped from his original captives later that night and began trekking through the woods to the west, following the sounds of artillery fire to find his way to the front lines where he was once again caught by the German military.

“Eventually the Germans told me they were going to surrender and they sent me to a hospital where I was picked up by this Army first lieutenant,” said Stark. “I had to sign paperwork to get back with my squadron since I was a Prisoner of War or else they would have sent me home.”

Stark reunited with his squadron in Bad Langensalza, Germany where he flew three more missions, a total of 30, by the time the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945.

After the war Stark moved to California for college before moving to Albuquerque in 1952. After moving to Albuquerque he was hired by the Sandia National Labs where he worked for 37 years as an aeronautical engineer, designing and testing externally carried nukes, but there was still a part of him that wanted to keep flying.

“I joined the guard in 1953 after I saw a notice at the electric company in downtown Albuquerque,” said Stark. “I was a dyed-in-the-wool pilot so I joined back up and served until ‘63.”

While in the New Mexico Air National Guard, Stark flew the P-51 Mustang for 30 hours, F-80 Shooting Star for 800 hours and the F-100 Super Sabre for 500 hours until his retirement in 1962.

His remarkable journey from serving as a pilot in World War II to his career as an aeronautical engineer is a testament to his unwavering dedication, bravery, and passion for aviation. His experiences in the war shaped his resilience and determination to continue flying and serving his nation. 

Stark's story is a reminder of the sacrifices made by veterans like him and the lasting impact they have on our history and society.