Walking to his car after a full day of visiting and more than ably handling his honorary captain role for his alma mater’s football playoff game against Ridgway at the end of halftime of their Oct. 25 playoff game, 1952 Brookville High School graduate James C. Harding was stopped.
It was one of Ridgway’s senior football players, Harry Snyder, stopping on his way back to the field to express his gratitude for the retired Air Force colonel’s years of service. Snyder heads to the Marines after he graduates.
“He just didn’t come up to me, but he unbuckled his helmet, took it off and I can’t remember what exactly he said, but he did thank me for my service and that he was going to the Marines,” Harding said last week in a telephone interview from his home, a 132-acre tree farm in Huntingdon, Tenn.
Veterans Day is Wednesday, Nov. 11, a day set aside to honor those who served in the military. Harding, 86, has been a very active member of the Vietnam Veterans of America over the years, supporting his area’s activities such as funerals, decorating graves and establishing a new veterans cemetery in western Tennessee.
“To me, serving our country is more like a duty than anything else,” Harding said. “My dad, grand-dad and great-grand-dad, all of them served in the military at one time or another. In World War II, my dad and his uncles, his brother and sisters, my grand-dad was in the Spanish-American War, my great-grand-dad, they all served in some kind of military service. It didn’t mean that much to me when I was growing up. It wasn’t until dad went into World War II that I realized what it was like.”
So when Harding stood at midfield during his introduction, things sort of came full circle. Growing up on the family’s “Maplevale” dairy farm within a mile or so of the high school campus that was a farm back when he was attending the one-room school house not far from the Raiders’ football field, there he stood in his highly-decorated Air Force uniform from his 23 years of service.
“I never saw an airplane until I was a junior at Penn State,” Harding recalled. “I saw pictures, but never actually had seen any kind of one at all, so flying was something that wasn’t in my thought process until I started ROTC. Then I realized this was something I believed in and of course, at that point, we were essentially at war with the Soviet Union and I wanted to be a part of it.
“So Veterans Day to me means that this is the time we recognize all the people who have served and Memorial Day is when we recognize people who gave their life for our country. Veterans Day is a very special day. I’ve probably spoken on Veterans Day 50 or so times because there’s always a need for someone to essentially summarize what the day means,” Harding said.
According to a military website www.veterantribute.org in a ranking list last updated in 2014, Harding is the 25th most decorated military personnel in the history of the United States. At the top of the list is Five Star Army General Douglas MacArthur.
Harding’s military awards include the Air Force Cross — only a Congressional Medal of Honor is a higher award — three Silver Stars, two Legion of Merits, nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts and 40 Meritorious Service Air Medals.
“It blows me away, too,” Harding said during a conversation this summer. “Someone wrote me one time and at that point I was 19th and he continued to do research and I ended up 25. It’s really amazing when you figure that MacArthur is No. 1 on the list.
“What I’m most proud of is the number of people I was able to save, whether it was rescue work or when I was teaching high school kids (in ROTC),” he continued. “There are kids who are much better off today than they were because of taking ROTC … You get letters from some of these kids and they say thanks to you I’m doing so and so, you realize you’ve made a difference, a huge difference in some of their lives.”
“I don’t think so,” Harding answered. “I just did what I’m supposed to do, what I got paid to do really.”
FROM COW TO AIRPLANE
For someone who hitch-hiked from Brookville to Colorado the summer he turned 16 in 1950 just so he could spend time on a ranch with beef cattle as opposed to the dairy farming he grew up with, Harding transitioning from a likely career with International Harvester or even the NFL after playing football and majoring in Animal Husbandry with a minor in English to a lifelong career in the Air Force was unlikely.
But that’s what happened after flying for the first time the summer before his senior year at Penn State in 1956. Being part of the Air Force ROTC program at Penn State was the hook.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen an airplane, by the way, and we went to some type of leadership training down in Georgia,” Harding said. “They took us up in a C-47, which is an old transport aircraft and it was the first time I’d ever flown, so that was really kind of interesting for me because Brookville was in the boondocks and not a lot of air traffic went out of that area.
“I said, ‘This is pretty cool,’ even though we were sitting in the back in a cargo seat. They let each of us walk up and look at the pilot and co-pilot and what they were doing and that was really interesting to see something like that. We didn’t get a tractor until I was a junior in high school. … It was almost like a magic machine.”
After deciding to head into the Air Force, Harding’s first stop was Marana Air Base in Arizona.
“It was a World War II training base with 10 auxiliary fields with a big slab of asphalt in the middle of the desert,” Harding said. “So when I was finishing up college my senior year, my inclinations were very high for flying and I went directly to pilot training. So the first thing you do is you’ve got a bunch of little airplanes sitting there, single-engine aircraft and you start flying.
“It was almost like magic for me to be able to fly. My instructor was very experienced and I had a little bit of a difficult time at first, but once I got the hang of it, I really loved it. It was just one of those things you got in your blood. I thought to myself, ‘This is pretty cool.’ And I got paid to do it.”
After a year’s worth of training, flying and book work, along with basic training and it was Harding’s choice of aircraft. It was the fighter aircraft.
“I just like being in control and not have to worry about somebody else right in there with me,” Harding said.
Harding moved on to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia to an all-weather interceptor school. It was the Cold War and, “We were learning how to intercept the enemy and shoot them down,” Harding said.
“Because I could fly well enough, I could train other pilots in how to fly under instrument conditions, when you can’t see outside and within the clouds and so on.”
Harding, an offensive lineman at Penn State, also played football on the base at Moody and was a player-coach.
Then a lieutenant at Moody, Harding was asked by a two-star general from Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to play football there. His Penn State days paid off and Harding moved to Lackland and became not only a player-coach there but also a squadron commander of a 400-person unit.
“That was how flying as well as being able to play football got me exactly what I needed to do,” said Harding, who was working with fitness programs while playing volleyball at Moody.
After two years at Lackland, Harding was sent to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida where he flew with the the 558th Tactical Fighter Squadron. That was from September of 1962 to July of 1963 and of course during that time came the tense period of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962.
While also there, Harding helped train pilots who had been out of the cockpit for a period of time and needed to learn the F-84s, a fighter-bomber plane.
Then it was time for the stare-down with Cuba and the Soviets.
“We would load up with napalm and fly all the way down to just off the coast of Cuba and wait for a signal. It never came for us to go drop bombs. We did that about a half a dozen times,” Harding said. “You’re kind of nervous because you get much closer to Cuba, you’re going to be within their anti-aircraft artillery. They didn’t have surface-to-air missiles in those days, but they did have a lot of artillery and also had the MIGs, the big fighter planes as well.”
ON TO THE FAR EAST
In the summer of 1963, Harding transferred to the 313th Air Division at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. Harding was working for the plans division at that point, drawing up what would be done if the U.S. went to war with anyone in the Southeast Asia area. He did that for about a year.
Of course while on the base, Harding still managed to keep a career going in football while also playing and coaching soccer and volleyball along with wrestling.
Yes, wrestling. Technically, Harding was Brookville’s first NCAA Division I wrestler even though Brookville’s first season was 1960. At Penn State, he backed up 1955 national champion Bill Oberly for two seasons, not seeing any official bouts on the mat.
“I was somebody he could throw around the mat,” Harding said.
Harding was part of the first United States unit to get sent to Vietnam with the 3rd Airborne Brigade as its Air Liaison Officer, who was responsible for coordinating strikes with the ground forces.
That was the position he was serving when he was shot down for the first time while in a helicopter directing strikes.
“We were hit in the rotor and landed pretty hard and there was another helicopter nearby so they picked us up pretty quick,” Harding said. “I did learn that a helicopter can land pretty hard.”
Harding did spend time on the ground with infantry during 18 operations, lasting anywhere from a week to a month “chasing the bad guys.”
In 1964, Harding came back to the United States to help develop another aircraft more suited for combat in Vietnam. He spent time in Wichita, Kan., where Cessna Aircraft Company was located and Harding helped write the flight manual for the craft.
He served various roles of an air liaison officer, helping direct strikes at night at targets in Laos and Cambodia. He flew 442 combat missions in the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog and U-10, with 101 of those missions over North Vietnam.
BACK TO THE STATES AND BACK TO VIETNAM
Harding, not wishing to leave Southeast Asia, was moved to an instructor position at Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama from 1967 to 1971. When he got the chance to go back to the Far East, he volunteered to help fill the Air Force’s need for A-1E Skyraider pilots.
“The first tour, I was not dropping bombs, I was just guiding other people,” Harding said. “I had a lot of combat time from my first tour, so when I got over there the second time I was only a Major and usually the position of Wing Commander was a Lieutenant Colonel, so I was constantly watching my backside making sure I didn’t do anything wrong or I’d be immediately replaced.”
As Wing Commander, the essence of what it takes to make a fighter pilot was evident.
“I had people in my squadron that I would not put on certain missions because I knew they were going to be very dangerous,” Harding said. “I will say that in those days, you think you’re bullet-proof. It doesn’t make any difference how many times your plane gets hit, you never figured you’re going to get hurt. If you fear that, these are the people I’d be very careful about what missions I’d put them on.
“Those individuals aren’t going to be as capable as one who says he’d do whatever it takes to get it done. So you have to develop that mindset and you have to trust in God. I know that I did, and I know that most of the people that I knew did as well. You trust God’s going to be with you because you know you’re doing the right thing.”
RESCUING, SAVING, SURVIVING
Harding was featured in a History Channel documentary that involved him playing a key role in a 1972 mission to rescue downed airman Major Clyde D. Smith. That episode, available on www.youtube.com as well, was shown to the junior and senior classes when Harding spent the day at Brookville Area High School.
That mission earned him his Air Force Cross.
When Smith, after being rescued, got back to the carrier, he was moving through a reception line greeting him.
“Hello, I’m Sandy-1,” said Harding to Smith, who used that code name throughout the mission as they communicated from plane to Smith’s hiding spots on the ground.
“I didn’t know Jim Harding from anybody, but we threw our arms around each other and my first thought was he was just like (famous actor) Charlton Heston,” Smith said during the documentary. “I don’t remember what I said to him, but how can you say thank you for saving my life?”
Of course, there were other missions. Flying an unarmed O-1 Cessna at a relatively slow speed at 85 mph with windows down because of the jungle heat, Harding realized that some U.S. ground troops were in danger of being ambushed so while flying his Cessna, Harding fired some rounds from his M-16 out the window to draw fire to alert his colleagues on the ground.
Toward the end of his tour and as the U.S. was removing ground troops from Vietnam, Harding himself was shot down in 1972, not long after Smith’s rescue.
The mission began with an attempted rescue of some American advisors and a plane being shot down with a surface-to-air missile, something that hadn’t been seen in Vietnam up to that point. It was Russian technology and Harding was about to get involved from his base in Thailand. He and another pilot flew a mission to help.
“We flew over and were circling around to try to assess the situation to decide what we were going to do and I see a streak of light and all of a sudden the engine is in front of my eyes,” Harding said. “The cowling is gone, the propeller is gone and I think they thought they missed because I started circling to get out away from it and another missile hit the bottom of the aircraft and I couldn’t control going up or down and I wasn’t very high, maybe 1,200 to 1,500 feet.”
“As I’m coming down, I started getting shot at by the bad guys on the ground, so I’m using parachute risers to try to juke away from them,” Harding said. “I also saw my wing man, who I told to get out over the water so he could help coordinate a rescue if I was shot down, floating down in his parachute because he was shot down as well.”
Harding shot a North Vietnam soldier with his .38 pistol then used the dead soldier’s AK-47 to eliminate three others and eluded capture. He was rescued by U.S. Army Huey helicopters. One that initially picked up Harding was shot down by another missile after dropping him off during the extraction mission.
Harding’s tour in Vietnam ended shortly after being shot down as he transferred to the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing and England Air Force Base in Louisiana for a year followed by service at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. He also spent more time at Maxwell and then Shaw Air Force Base until his retirement in July of 1979.
After he retired, Harding fed his passion as a commander of Air Force Junior ROTC detachments, high school level schools, in Florida, Hawaii, Germany, Texas and Italy.
That’s what made him comfortable addressing students at Brookville Area High School some 54 years after he graduated from his alma mater.
Harding encouraged the junior and senior classes to find something in life that they enjoy doing so then it’ll never feel like a job.
“When you think about it, life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away,” he told the senior class. “What we have to understand in life is that there are ups and downs, but if you worry about the downs, you’ll never enjoy the ups. I congratulate you on being a senior ready to go out into the world and take it over.
“I complement you on the fact that you’ve gotten this far in school and I know you’re going to do great out there in life.”