Monday, May 26, 2008

Men of Valor, Men of Steel

In which we remember
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.

Captain William Mattis was a great warrior but also an artist, having studied music at USC and was, by all accounts, a more-than-competent violinist. He enlisted the Army Air Service near the end of the Second World War and served as an aircraft mechanic from 1944 to 1946. In 1952, he went back on active duty, this time in the newly minted United States Air Force. After two months he became an aviation cadet, signaling his yearn to fly. He was made an officer and trained to fly jet fighter aircraft, eventually flying F-100 Super Sabers in Korea. Later, while flying these jets for NATO in Europe, he was involved in an accident which broke his back. They said he would never fly again, but he did, eveentually flying B-57 Canberra bombers. During his time behind a desk he served as an Air Force comptroller.
It was the height of the Cold War, and Captain Mattis became increasingly concerned about the spread of communism and Soviet expansion. With conflict brewing between communist North Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam in the south, Captain Mattis was sent to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

On March 11, 1965, Captain Mattis was flying his B-57 in close air support for ground troops then taking a pounding by Viet Cong insurgents. The record states that:

Despite marginal weather conditions, and partially concealed positions in rugged mountain terrain, and with great risk to his personal safety, Captain Mattis pressed the attack and achieve accurate delivery of high explosive bombs and anti-personnel on hostile positions.

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.
In his remarks, cousin Charles also mentioned my grandfather, Colonel Michael C. Mattis. Like his son, Bill, The Colonel, as we always called him, began his military career as an enlisted man, eventually working his way up through the ranks during the Second World War and the Korean War. In World War II, The Colonel was the chief ordinance officer on the island of Tinian, from which the B-29 Stratofortress, Enola Gay, took off on it mission to end the war in the Pacific by destroying the city of Hiroshima with the atomic bomb, Little Boy, on August 6, 1945.

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.


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