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Anyone awarded an Air Force Cross is by definition a hero, for that prestigious honor is second only to the Medal of Honor. James Helms Kasler earned three Air Force Crosses, the only man in history to do so, and he is clearly thus a hero to the third power.

Kasler’s life is told in memorable detail in Tempered Steel , by Perry D. Luckett and Charles L. Byler (Potomac Books, Potomac, Md., 2005, $27.95), which benefits greatly from having two highly qualified writers and researchers as authors. It begins conventionally enough with details of Kasler’s early years, which reveal him to be a natural warrior at heart. This snapshot of Kasler the fighter is reinforced throughout the book. The story of his life makes it clear that his decisive manner of thinking was backed by courage in the highest degree.

In 1944 Kasler was disappointed to find the aviation cadet program closed to him. Instead, the 18-year-old private first class learned to be a tail-gunner on a Boeing B-29. He flew seven combat missions against Japan, one of them ending in the first landing of a B-29 on the newly captured airstrip on Okinawa.

Kasler returned home from combat, worked hard, played semiprofessional football and eventually married his sweetheart, Martha Lee Rankin. But by 1949, the urge to fly was too great to contain, and he entered the aviation cadet program. He did so well that he was able to choose his assignment, selecting training in jets. It was a choice that would propel him to the top.

After an interval flying the Republic F-84, Kasler joined the 335th Fighter Interceptor Wing at Kimpo, Korea, in November 1951, where he was soon working for one of the Air Force’s great leaders, Colonel Harrison Thyng. The authors wisely include accounts of Thyng and other famous fliers, including Gus Grissom, James Low, Bud Mahurin and Boots Blesse.

Kasler had six confirmed victories during his tour and was considered by James Salter (who wrote a foreword for the book) to be “the nonpareil” of fighter pilots. Salter describes Kasler as a natural pilot with “furied patience like that of a lion lying flattened in the tall grass.” It is a phrase that captures only part of Kasler, for he had great depths that would not be tested for another 14 years.

Kasler had a fascinating peacetime career, but his personal characteristics would pay off again when he volunteered for combat in Vietnam in 1966, flying the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. He earned two Air Force Crosses leading bombing missions—the first an attack against a heavily defended petroleum storage complex in Hanoi on June 29, 1966, and the second when he was shot down while flying a rescue mission for his wingman on August 8, 1968.

Captured immediately by the North Vietnamese, Kasler was subjected to incredible punishment. He resisted the urge to submit, and his courageous spirit raised the morale of his fellow prisoners. For his inspirational leadership during seven years of imprisonment, Kasler was awarded his unprecedented third Air Force Cross.

The authors also cover Kasler’s postwar years, during which he became a successful businessman using many of the techniques that sustained him first in combat and then as a POW. Then, in a graceful touch, they provide an appendix in which Jim Kasler gives his personal perspectives on a variety of subjects, ranging from the press coverage of the Vietnam War to the defense budget to matters of honesty and integrity. It is a perfect ending to the book, for it fleshes out the man in a way no author could—in his own words.


Originally published in the March 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here