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A young aviator captures life as a navy flying cadet at Pensacola on the eve of World War II

In March, three weeks after my mother died, I forced myself to drive to a storage unit to clear out the last pile of old boxes. Rain drummed against the tin roof as I entered the damp, unlit space, and I noticed the sound of water dripping inside. I bumped against a soggy cardboard box, and was tempted to ignore it. What could it possibly contain worth saving? I maneuvered it into my car anyway. When I opened the box at home, the first thing that caught my eye was a thick old photo album with gold aviator wings imprinted on the cover. Inside, a young navy cadet—he looked vaguely familiar—was practicing target shooting from the cockpit, learning to fly in bomber formation, landing on a dime on the deck of an aircraft carrier, listening to an instructor’s navigation lecture, waiting in line for the pay wagon, playing cards in the barracks on a chilly night.

I was transfixed by this moment-to-moment record of a young aviator’s days at Pensacola Naval Air Station from 1936 to 1941, captured by a camera he must have carried everywhere. Alongside the photographs were hand-drawn cartoons that showed a keen eye and a wry wit. These were dated and signed “John O. Rush.” This man, I realized, was the uncle I never knew.

All I remember hearing as a child was “Everyone loved John”—a man with a passion for flying and, as it turned out, photography. Named for his father, a physician, John grew up in Mobile, Alabama, with his older sister and younger brother George—my father, who followed John to Navy flight school. In 1936, John graduated from Auburn University with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering. He was senior class president, president of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, and headed the university’s honor society and an honorary military society.

On June 17, 1941, Lt. John Rush was completing the test flight of the new Curtiss SNC-1 Falcon when his plane crashed in a rainsquall 15 miles from the air base. It was his 27th birthday. America’s entry into World War II was just six months away, but John would never see combat.

Remarkably, his album did survive. What follows is a sampling of some 400 photographs and cartoons he made, offering a glimpse of life at Pensacola before the storm broke.

For additional images from Lt. John Rush’s album visit our online extra gallery!


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