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Seniors Got Talent

John Purves Shares Tales of his Air Force Service

photo of John Purves

A Resident Feature

John Purves, a resident at Morning Pointe of Franklin, Tennessee, has had a long and distinguished career of service in the U.S. Air Force, and beyond…

Youth and Training

John was born in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, in 1933. His work ethic was formed in part from summers working in the cherry orchards. One summer, he even worked alongside Green Bay Packer quarterback Cecil Isbell. Cecil gave him his straw hat.

After graduating from Sturgeon Bay High School in 1951, John went to Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin.

“I went to Lawrence because they had an Air Force ROTC,” John shared. “Having majored in physics and math in college, I really figured that when I went into the Air Force I would become a meteorologist because that’s what they usually did with math and physics majors. But I passed the flight physical, and next thing I knew, I was in flight training.”

John did his initial training with the T-34 and T-28 aircraft at Bainbridge Air Base in Georgia, and then trained in jet aircraft at Laredo Air Force Base in Texas. Further training, with the F-84F, took place at Luke Air Force Base west of Phoenix, Arizona. Finally, he went to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas to train in the F-100 aircraft.

“That’s where I learned to drop bombs,” John said.

photo of John Purves in uniform
John Purves in uniform

Active Service

Then, the training in the States was over, and John went overseas to France. There he served as a bomb commander.

“I was flying the F-100 fighter bomber, and I was stationed in France, and that was during the Cold War,” John explained. “We had targets in Eastern Germany with nuclear weapons, and we were set to drop an atomic bomb when directed to do so. I had to know everything about the atomic weapon we were carrying, how to load it and how to deliver it, and we were tested rigorously.” After some time in France, John got shuffled around, which was not uncommon for bachelors in the service. He spent a couple of tours in Turkey with F-100s and eventually volunteered to go to England to fly the F-101. Between Turkey deployments, he was involved in the Cuban missile crisis, targeting missile sites in Cuba. Thankfully, bombing was averted.

When he was stationed in England, his team spent its practice time at a bombing range in Tripoli, Libya.

F-101s circling Roman ruins at Sabratha, Libya. John said it took him around 50 tries to get this photo while flying.
F-101s circling Roman ruins at Sabratha, Libya. John said it took him around 50 tries to get this photo while flying.

“I was an early riser, and I found that when we were doing bombing training in Libya, the winds were very insignificant early in the day, but they’d get up to around 100 knots around noon,” John said. “I got up early most of my career.”

Tripoli was also the scene of his scariest moment. “I was making a takeoff with four external tanks on an F-100, and I thought I lost the engine on takeoff, but I hadn’t lost the engine,” John remembered. “I lost both my nose gear tires, and it set off a terrific vibration.”

John followed procedure: throttle idle, drag chute deploy, external tanks jettison.

“Well, we changed that procedure as a result of what happened to me,” John said. “I throttled idle, deployed the shoot, jettisoned the external stores. They exploded and burned the drag chute off. There I was heading toward the end of the runway, and I was going to engage the barrier, but the nose gear finally failed without any rubber on the tires and collapsed. I went skidding through the base perimeter fence, railroad track, and embankment and stopped about 10 feet short of a grove of palm trees.”

While John was in the service, he met an Air Force nurse named Alexandra. She was a captain, and they got married. When she got pregnant with their first daughter, however, she had to resign from the service.

When their daughter was about 6 months old, John was deployed to Vietnam to fly combat missions. John served in Da Nang and flew mostly night missions in the F-4 Phantom. As a result, he didn’t see much of the actual fighting. However, both of his roommates were shot down and captured and each spent more than six years in prison.

John eventually transferred to headquarters, and his job was to fly with the different Air Force units in Thailand and Vietnam.

During active duty, he won six “top gun” awards for navigational and bombing accuracy, some in international competition and others competing against top American pilots.

Teaching and Korea Service

After Vietnam, John transferred to George Air Force Base in California to teach students to fly the F-4 Phantom, his favorite aircraft. He instructed there for six years.

“I instructed in air-to-air maneuvering, bombing and gunnery,” John said. “We had to teach them a little differently. Normal pilot training consists of flying the plane very coordinated, but we learned that if you fly a plane coordinated, somebody on the ground is going to shoot at you. They or their radar can predict where you’re going to be so they can shoot you down, so you want to skid along sideways and tumble and other things that pilots don’t normally do.”

While he was in California, he and Alexandra welcomed another daughter, but, as before, John was sent overseas while she was still a baby. This time, he was sent to Korea.

“I was one of the first pilots that ever stood nuclear alert with two targets and two bombs,” John remembered. “It’s bad enough having to deliver one, but then having to deliver two and be able to survive is another story.”

He recounted some of the precautions he and his cohorts had to take: “We knew that we were liable to be exposed to a nuclear explosion, so they made us wear an eye patch over one eye so if we were to experience a nuclear flash, we’d only be blind in the one eye. Then we could just switch to another eye and make it back home all the way.”

John’s longest flight was from Northern Spain to Little Rock, Arkansas, with four aerial refuelings. It took 10 hours and 20 minutes.

“I was pretty tired,” John said. “There was an autopilot, but we pilots didn’t trust them in those days.”

newspaper article about John
Newspaper article about John

Post-Service Work

Over his 22 years in service, John earned the Air Force Commendation Medal with one oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Combat Readiness Medal with three oak leaf clusters and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Medal. Others too numerous to list were simply for being “where it happened.”

After discharging from the military, John sold real estate on Cape Cod for a short time before going back to Sturgeon Bay.

“I contacted the shipyard where they were building ships for the Navy,” John said. “When I applied for a job, they thought I had contacts in Washington, so they hired me on the spot.”

He became something of a supply officer, where he served for 15 years.

“We made one ship that was a salvage vessel, and they retrieved the parts of the [Space Shuttle] Challenger.” The same ship also recovered the body of John F. Kennedy, Jr.

In the 1980s, John and his wife attended a ceremony held on the South lawn of the White House in which President Ronald Reagan presented a symbolic medal to the first American prisoner of war from the Vietnam War.

“We were proud to have been invited and enjoyed the short speech,” John said.

Over his life, John is most proud of his wife and children. Each daughter also has two children. Unfortunately, his wife passed away about four years ago. One daughter lives in Chicago, where she is a toy representative selling toys to stores.

Moving in to Morning Pointe

One of his daughters, Heather Gregory, lives in the housing development across the street from Morning Pointe of Franklin.

John moved into Morning Pointe this spring, after he broke his leg. “I like the food,” John said of the community. “I like that all the associates, including the managers, chip in and do what needs to be done, maybe for a move-in or waiting on tables, which is unusual in this day and age.”

Thank you, John, for doing your own part of what needed to be done to serve our country and protect freedoms around the world.

Photo of competitors at a weapons meet
Competitors at a weapons meet

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