James E.P. Randall
1920 – December 9, 2019
The son of a librarian and a railroad worker, Randall grew up during the Great Depression in the segregated schools of Roanoke, VA.
When World War II started, he yearned to become a pilot. A few men he knew had become Tuskegee Airmen – the first black military pilots who trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, starting in 1941.
Randall joined the Army Air Corps in 1945 and, after completing basic training, was assigned to Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama. He was commissioned as an officer in 1950, then assigned to Perrin Air Force Base, Texas, as a flight instructor. He later moved to Craig AFB, Ala., to be an F-51 instructor. Assigned to the 12th Fighter Bomb Squadron, Randall flew a total of 75 F-51 combat missions in the Korean War.
Later, during the Vietnam conflict, he added 44 additional combat missions to his total before being shot down over Vietnam. His decorations include the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal and Purple Heart.
“I got lucky. There were guns all over, but I was never shot down,” Randall said in a 2013 interview with The Gazette. “I just love flying. I never wanted to do anything else.”
In Vietnam, he was part of Operation Rolling Thunder, and on Oct. 13, 1965, was shot down while flying his 44th mission, to destroy a bridge near the border. He deployed the explosives before his plane went down, ejecting and parachuting to the ground, where, despite his injuries, he managed to avoid capture and radio for help. A rescue party retrieved him, but his gear — and helmet — were gone.
Randall recuperated and ultimately moved to Colorado Springs, where he retired from the military in 1980. He never forgot about what he’d lost, though. He even considered going back to Vietnam to look for it after the war, but decided the odds of finding it were too slim.
The Vietnam vet who helped reunite him with that helmet, 48 years after it was lost, traveled from Lincoln, NE., to attend his funeral.
The story of how the helmet found its way to Gary “Paco” Gregg and then back to its original owner, 8,000 miles and almost a half-century away, reads like a Hollywood screenplay. In 2013, it brought Gregg not only to the end of his quest but to an unexpected, and abiding, friendship.
Col. Randall’s many awards and decorations include the Congressional Gold Medal, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal and Meritorious Service Medal.