Today’s veteran: John Alexander, 89
Residence: St. Simons Island
Service: Air Force, 5 1/2 years active duty, more than 24 years in Air Force Reserve
Duties: Navigator, instructor
Rank: Lt. colonel
Duty stations: Waco, Texas; Ellington Air Force Base, Texas; Hamilton Air Force Base, Texas; Ladd Air Force Base, Alaska
Recognitions: National Defense Service Medal; Air Force Longevity Service Award
His story: Like many young men planning to enlist in the Air Force, John Alexander wanted to be a pilot.
And like many men at the time, there were more volunteers than available pilot’s jobs.
Alexander, with three years of college completed, chose to be a be trained as a navigator.
“I wanted to fly from the time I was very, very young,” he said. “I used to go the Atlanta airport to watch planes land as a kid.”
After six month’s of training, Alexander did so well in the classroom, he was assigned as a navigation instructor, a job he did for 2 1/2 years.
His next duty assignment was in Alaska, where the Cold War was creating tensions among those serving.
“We were the frontier against the Russians,” he said.
Alexander said flight crews played games with the Soviets, coming close enough the their air space to force them to scramble their jets. He said American pilots chose the worst days for weather to make it difficult for Soviet pilots to land safely when they returned home.
“Sometimes we would schedule three or four escorts with multiple call signs to confuse them,” he said. “Russian radar would probe us during the worst weather.”
When his unit wasn’t flying, Alexander said they kept busy upgrading equipment and training.
“It was a good group of guys,” he said. “I was in my upper 20s, and I got to fly.”
While Alexander said he never had any tense moments, he had some cold ones. He spent a week in survival training at the Army’s cold weather training station when the temperature plunged to 65 degrees below.
“We were told to breathe through our nose instead of the mouth so your lungs didn’t freeze,” he said. “We just hunkered down.”
Prior to leaving for survival training, Alexander got bamboozled by a fellow officer who sold him some rations. What he didn’t realize is the rations were for a tropical environment not an arctic one. He said it took an hour for him to suck on the food like a popsicle.
He decided in Alaska that he wanted to complete his goal to become a teacher and left active duty after 5 1/2 years. He would serve more than 24 more years as a reservist while teaching math and social studies to junior high students. He eventually rose to principal.
“The reservist duty was good,” he said.
He met former Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and famous test pilot Chuck Yeagar, the first person to break the sound barrier, during his time as a reservist.
Alexander logged 1,920 hours of flying time as a pilot, including serving in the Civil Air Patrol, until health forced him out of the pilot’s seat. He credits his military service for the opportunities and success he has enjoyed.
“It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” he said. “I got to see parts of the world I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I really love this country.”