Naperville veteran firmly grounded after a soaring aviation career
By Susan frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org November 10, 2012 10:38PM
Jay Davis, a 27-year Marine veteran, adjusts the collar of his dress uniform as he prepares to head to the Marine Corps Ball on Saturday, November 10, 2012. Davis, a pilot, flew Marine One for president Richard Nixon. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 12, 2012 6:09AM
When he was a little boy growing up in Idaho, it wasn’t unusual for Jay Davis Jr. to have his eyes trained on the skies.
His dad, who’d tried without success to get into flight school himself, had wanted his namesake to be a doctor or a dentist.
“I didn’t want to do either,” said Davis, 76.
All the same, for a time in his early adulthood it looked like that might happen. Davis was nearing his undergraduate work as a premed major when a classmate mentioned that he’d been accepted into the Navy’s aviation training program.
Thinking it was no big deal, Davis placed a small wager that he could do the same.
He likes to tell people that’s how he wound up in military service: “It was a $5 bet.”
But really it was about longing, for as long as he could remember, to take to the sky.
“Something I always wanted to do when I was a kid was fly airplanes,” the 23-year Naperville resident said.
He would up doing a lot of that during 27 years of active duty, when he worked as an aviator and maintenance officer.
Decorated by duty
Davis was able to see the world — or a good-sized cross section of it, anyway — during his time in the service. The military took him to Japan, Iran, Lebanon, Australia, Korea, Laos and Vietnam, among other places. He delivered aircraft to the Shah of Iran in the mid-1970s, and spent some anxious periods in Bierut, Lebanon, when tensions were peaking there.
“That was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “Everybody there had a gun except me.”
He was shot down six times while on missions in Vietnam. That’s not a bad percentage, considering he flew more than 1,200 missions during the war.
“Vietnam was very gratifying,” he said. “You’d literally go out and save 100 lives in one day.”
The deployment brought him more than 70 declarations, including a Legion of Merit, a Purple Heart, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Combat Action ribbon and some 60 air medals — far more than he could pin onto his uniform.
The first of his medals was earned in 1965 — in peacetime, which is unusual.
His executive officer and a subordinate had gone missing, at night and in the midst of a blizzard, Davis said. Against the odds — and because no other pilots could be found right then, defying requirements that the aircraft available to him at the moment be flown by two operators — he found the two.
“I wasn’t going to sit there and let those guys rot in a snowstorm,” Davis said.
In high places
His tours of duty also brought him close to some famous people. There was the kid he went in low to pick up from a dangerous position, dodging trees as he flew, only to learn later that the young serviceman’s uncle was a performer named Johnny Cash. The famed “Man in Black” showed his gratitude by dedicating a song to Davis at a performance soon afterward.
“Out of the wild blue, you make a connection,” Davis said.
And then there was the period, beginning in 1969 and stretching for some five years, when his assignment was flying the nation’s chief executive, piloting the Marine One helicopter. President Richard Nixon often went during those days to see his friend, the Cuban-American playboy Charles “Bebe” Rebozo.
Davis tells of one particularly memorable trip, when he skirted a few regulations to fuel up and hasten, keeping his profile low, to pick up the president and take him to visit his buddy. Confronted by a military official who demanded to be put in touch with Davis’ boss, he followed the order. He dialed, and the White House picked up.
The stunned official, Davis related, declared, “I don’t know who the hell you are, but you get your gas and get out.”
He also remembers clearly his final flight with the besieged president. It happened on July 7, 1974 — barely a month before Nixon resigned in disgrace.
“I was told to shut down on the lawn, which was unusual,” Davis said. “He came up to me and thanked me for my years of service.”
Fast and low
It wasn’t the official White House helicopter that he liked best. Of the three dozen-plus aircraft Davis flew during his long hitch, the A-4 attack fighter jet, which clocks at 853 feet per second, was his favorite.
“It was low-altitude, high-speed flying,” said Davis, who recently went part-time as a public safety officer at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.
His coworker, fellow officer Scott Quinn, never tires of hearing the military man’s memories. He prompted favorites one day last week for Davis to share anew with a visitor.
“It’s an advantage to let other people hear some of the stories,” Quinn said. “When you sit down and start talking, nothing else much matters.”
Davis and his wife, Susan, always go to the Marine Corps Ball. The black-tie event takes place at locations across the U.S. every year on Nov. 10, to commemorate the birthday of the military branch.
Davis knows the following day is special to more than just him and his brethren. Veterans Day is being observed more closely by many Americans, as they build a broader understanding of the sacrifices made by those who enlist.
“It’s a day where we reflect, and maybe people remember. I guess it’s as simple as that,” he said. “When I came back from Vietnam, people didn’t want to remember.”
He understands that. Davis was in his late 40s, newly retired from the service, when he and Susan married. She had confessed during their engagement that she’d taken part in some of the many demonstrations conducted at the height of the conflict in southeast Asia.
“I said, ‘If I hadn’t been over there, I’d have been demonstrating with you,’” he said.
And he recognizes that those returning from war now need to meet a warmer reception on the home front than they did back then.
“Oh man, it’s tough. It’s really tough,” he said. “For them, (battle) is extra hard, because it might be in the ground. When an explosive is in the ground — I can’t even imagine it.”
He thinks those who haven’t served have developed a much deeper appreciation for those who have.
“I think in general terms the civilian population has awakened, and is starting to acknowledge military members and their service,” he said. “I wear a Marine jacket and a Marine cap when I go out, and I’m told all the time, ‘Thank you for your service.’”