Men of Valor, Men of Steel
Monday last, I was honored to be a member of the family party at the dedication of Mattis Hall, at Sheppard Air Force Base, Wichita Falls, Texas. Mattis Hall, a dormitory for airmen in the 363rd training squadron, was named for Captain William C. Mattis, my uncle. I never met Bill, as he was known in my family. He was killed in Vietnam in 1965, shortly after I was born. But the shadow of his legacy is a long one. His presence in my family has always been deeply felt.
The dedication was a high military affair, the likes of which I have never witnessed. It began with ruffles and flourishes at the arrival of the official party, which included my cousin, Charles Mattis, William's son, Brigardier General Richard Devereaux, Lt. Colonel Thomas Ventriglia, and other dignitaries, and the colors were presented. After that, the national anthem was sung. Gloriously belted out by a young African American sergeant named Beneria Hall, it was the single most moving rendition of that song I have ever had the pleasure to hear.
Chaplain James Pitts gave a moving prayer and Master Sergeant Matthew Saganski gave opening remarks. Lt. Colonel Ventriglia and Brigadier General Deveraux also spoke, as did my cousin, Charles.
He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, the National Order, Fifth Class and, from the Republic of Viet Nam, the Gallantry Cross with Palm Uplifted.
Colonel Mattis was awarded the Bronze Star, the Army Soldier's Medal for Heroism (the highest honor that an U.S. Army serviceman can by awarded in peace time) and many others.
After the ceremony, Colonel Ventriglia took us on an extensive tour of the base (of which I will write more anon). Later that evening, the extended family went to dinner together. Here, we went through old photos. Among these was one of the dashing Pan Am clipper pilot, Captain John Mattis, The Colonel's brother and my great uncle, known the family as Jack. The old black and white photo, probably taken in the late 1930s, showed Jack in his smart uniform and white cap, his upper lip decorated with a pencil-thin mustache reminiscent of Clark Gable's.
Jack is a legend in the family, having for many years held the world's record for number of miles flown. By the 1950s, he had become one of the public faces of Pan Am and in 1956 was featured in the Life Magazine ad above, his portrait painted by Norman Rockwell. The legend reads:
"Master Pilot John Mattis, one of the Clipper Captains, who has logged over 500 transatlantic flights."
Attached to Jack's photo was a newspaper clipping about him. Turns out that Jack was not only a record-holding gentleman of the air, he was also a graduate of the University of Paris with a degree in French and a well known sculptor who created friezes in bronze which decorated airports in the middle of the last century.
It may be time for me to finally learn to fly.
And to all the veterans out there, Peace.