WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Boozman honored the service and sacrifice of the late Colonel James (Jim) Elmer in ‘Salute to Veterans,’ a series recognizing the military service of Arkansans.
Elmer was a Vietnam veteran who also served as commander of the Little Rock Air Force Base during his 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force.
On March 12, Elmer shared stories of his military experience for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Elmer passed away four months after this interview. This is a highlight of the conversation to celebrate and honor a life well-lived.
Elmer was born in Richland Center, Wisc., in 1934. He learned the value of hard work at a young age, earning money as a laborer on local farms to help his family.
When describing his early years, Elmer humbly shared, “I got all the breaks there were.” Because he didn’t have money to pay for college, he anticipated going to work after graduating high school. Luckily, his principal knew he was destined for bigger and better things and encouraged Elmer to pursue a degree at the University of Illinois.
“I passed the test and went to school,” Elmer said. “They said you have to take ROTC.”
Elmer kept a busy schedule at the university, particularly with ROTC and FarmHouse fraternity. However, these obligations were put on hold when his mom passed away. “I stayed out of school for half a semester,” Elmer recalled. He considered quitting, but returned to campus and convinced his professors to let him take the final exams, even earning the top score in one of his classes.
Elmer graduated from the University of Illinois with a vocational agriculture bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
He had several assignments during his military career, one of which was serving as a navigator on C-130s during the Vietnam War. “Our job was to fly and take off when the sun went down and land when the sun came up,” Elmer said. “We were making this place light up like daylight.” These operations became known as “Blind Bat.” The C-130 crews would drop flares to detect the enemy’s movements so bombers would know where to strike.
“We were shot at, many times, we came back with bullet holes,” Elmer recalled.
The dangers also existed within the plane. “I remember going to the back of the aircraft looking at all these drums, and the liquid was sloshing around,” Elmer said. That liquid was napalm.
After returning stateside, Elmer was assigned to teach ROTC at St. Louis University. “I got ROTC because I volunteered,” he said. “I had so many chances to do things. I ended up volunteering and having a good time, but I put my whole heart into it and I guess that was what made the difference.”
He served another tour overseas in southeast Asia. He continued his career in the Air Force and earned a master’s degree in secondary education from St. Louis University. In 1975, he was assigned to the Little Rock Air Force Base. He served with the 32nd Tactical Airlift Squadron, the 16th Tactical Airlift Squadron, and assumed the role of Deputy Commander of the 314th Combat Support Group before serving as Base Commander from October 1978 until May 1979.
His final Air Force assignment was at Norton Air Force Base in California. During his eight years there, which culminated as Commander of the Aerospace Audiovisual Service, he received his most treasured award, the Order of the Sword. This distinction is given by the enlisted troops to an officer.
Following his military service, he worked at Lockheed Martin and continued his commitment to the community. He was a member of the Military Order of the World Wars and helped establish the Central Arkansas Chapter. He went on to serve one term as National Commander. He also shared his patriotism with Arkansas fifth graders as a teacher of flag education and etiquette. “I’ve taught thousands of kids flag education and I’d do it all over again,” Elmer said.
Elmer was inducted into the Arkansas Military Veterans’ Hall of Fame in 2018.
His wife of 63 years, Ruth, was beside him during every step of his military career. The couple had four children who blessed them with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Colonel Elmer spent his life serving others. He was a dedicated member of the Air Force and continued his commitment to his country even after he retired. His memories of his time in uniform are an important part of our history as much as his own story. I’m pleased we were able to capture his experiences so they can live on for future generations,” Boozman said.
Boozman will submit Elmer’s entire interview to the Veterans History Project, an initiative by the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center to collect and retain the oral histories of our nation’s veterans.