This past week, the world lost one of the greatest combat pilots of all time when Major General John R. ‘Johnny’ Alison died at the age of 98.
While John Alison may not be well-known to today’s public, he was quite a famous and impressive personality during the years of World War II and beyond. Although best-known for his activities in the Pacific Theaters including China-Burma-India, he also advised General Dwight Eisenhower on the use of gliders to ferry troops during the D-Day invasion of Continental Europe.
The first 35 years of General Alison’s life reads like a thriller novel. He became interested in flying during his high school years in Florida. A prodigy at flying, his first military stint was at Langley Field in Virginia in the late 1930s where he excelled at flying every form of aircraft.
Upon the outbreak of World War II, Alison was sent as a military attaché to England to support the Royal Air Force’s efforts to assemble and fly the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk aircraft that were being supplied by President Roosevelt under the Lend-Lease Act.
It was a mission he would repeat in the Soviet Union in 1941 after that country had been invaded by the Axis forces. He would later recount the frightening-yet-thrilling sensation of standing on the rooftop of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow, watching the German armies as they approached the city.
Alison was to escape the chaos of the Eastern Front by venturing through Iran to reach the port city of Basra in Iraq. From there, he ventured on to China and the Pacific campaigns in the Allies’ war with Japan.
In 1942, General Alison was tapped to be deputy commander of the 75th Flying Squadron, famous as the “Flying Tigers” whose pilots defended Chinese cities from Japanese air assaults. Commenting on his prowess in the sky, David Lee ‘Tex’ Hill, Alison’s commanding officer, would later write:
“John Alison had the greatest pure flying skill of any pilot in the theater – a touch on the controls that knew no equal. His talents were matched only by his eagerness for combat.”
As the war ground on, in 1944 Alison became a co-commander of the first Air Commando Force, which he organized as an ingenious operation to establish fortified bases behind Japanese enemy lines in Burma (Myanmar). This endeavor was to make the frontal army assault on Burma from British India far more effective.
And General Alison was by no means just an armchair strategist in carrying out this initiative; he led a force of 15 men, personally piloting a glider to an improvised landing strip on a teakwood plantation in establishing one of the Burma bases.
At the conclusion of World War II and with so many spectacular adventures behind him, Alison was all of 33 years old. What to do for an encore after such an eventful life already?
Not one to fly off into the sunset, Alison served as an assistant secretary of commerce during the administration of Harry Truman, and later participated in the Korean War. He retired from military service in 1955, beginning a second 3–year career working in the private sector for Northrop Corporation, from which he would retire as a senior vice president in 1984.
It’s been noted that many prominent aviators have lived extraordinarily long lives. During the near-century span of General Alison’s noteworthy life and career, he was honored on numerous occasions times for his record of military service, including receiving the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star.
These honors rightly memorialize the extraordinary life of John Alison. But there is a small anecdote about the man that neatly sums it all up. In 1940, Alison was participating in a demonstration of P-40 planes for Nationalist Chinese General Chiang Kai-Shek … who, duly imprsssed, promptly declared that he needed 100 of the aircraft for his war effort against the Japanese.
Pointing to Alison, the leader of the U.S. delegation responded to Chiang saying, “No, sir! You need 100 of those!”