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Air Force One pilot speaks at Fort Hood

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Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2007 12:00 pm | Updated: 4:55 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Amanda Kim Stairrett

Killeen Daily Herald

Retired Brig. Gen. James Cross has many stories from his days as

the pilot of Air Force One and military aide for former president Lyndon B. Johnson.

Cross spoke Monday afternoon during the Fort Hood Chapter Military Order of World Wars' monthly meeting.

He was selected to serve as pilot and military aide to Vice President Johnson in January 1962 and two years later was selected as pilot of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. In July 1965 he was appointed director of the White House Military Office, Armed Forces aide and personal pilot to the president.

Cross said that being a country boy from a 40-acre farm in south Alabama, he was delighted to find himself an Air Force One pilot.

He told those attending the meeting stories about Johnson and how difficult it was sometimes to get along with him.

Cross recounted a story from late 1967. Harold Holt, Australia's prime minister and a friend of Johnson's, drowned off the country's coast and the president called Cross, and told him: "Get my big airplane ready."

Johnson also told Cross that they might make a trip to visit the Pope in Rome, but he wasn't to tell a soul.

"Well, I knew I'd have to tell someone," Cross joked Monday.

Cross went on to tell a detailed story of how he and the crew stayed away for a 27-hour flight to California, Hawaii, American Samoa and Australia. When the plane finally landed at its destination, the president told Cross, who was at this time a full colonel, "Major, you look tired."

After a short stay in Australia, Cross said the president wanted to be in Rome on Christmas eve and home by Christmas day.

"This is all so funny to me still," he said.

The plane eventually landed in Rome, but not before a stop to visit American troops in Southeast Asia.

On the way to the stop, Cross was asked if he had "the medals." He always carried Purple Heart medals in case the president decided to pay a visit to wounded troops, but this time Johnson wanted Distinguished Service Medals to award to some of his top leaders.

Cross, of course, didn't have the medals and started a frantic effort to get a set of the medals delivered to the landing site in Vietnam by the time Air Force One touched down. He was still making calls as he saw Saigon appearing over the nose of the plane, he said.

It took a lot of work, but the medals appeared just as Johnson finished a short speech and was ready to pin them on the recipients.

"Success!" Cross thought.

Just when he thought he was in the clear, the president called for a Medal of Freedom to award the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Cross did not have one.

The president turned toward the crowd and said, "My military assistant has failed me one more time."

In that whirlwind trip, the president and his staff were away from the United States for 116 hours and in the air more than 59.

"It's been a great trip, major," Johnson told Cross in the air on the way back to Andrews.

He then asked if the Air Force base had a post exchange and asked that it be opened so he and his staff could do some 2 a.m. Christmas shopping.

Cross details many of his stories in a book set to be published in Spring 2008 by the University of Texas Press. He said he is able to recall names, dates and events from his career because of an extensive collection of records and daily diaries he kept.

Before serving as the president's pilot and military aide, Cross deployed to the China-Burma-India Theater near the end of World War II, and served in the Tactical Air Command, the Northeast Air Command, Military Air Transport Service and Military Airlift Command.

After leaving the White House in 1968, he attended RF-4C aircraft training before a tour to Vietnam and then returned to serve as the last commander of Bergstrom Air Force Base, which was located near Austin.

He has flown more than 11,000 hours in various military aircraft and retired from the Air Force in April 1971.

Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at astair@kdhnews.com or call (254) 504-7547

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