For half a century, James Beard kept a memento from the Vietnam War propped against the wall of his Spotsylvania County home.

It was an AK-47 rifle, the primary infantry weapon used by the North Vietnamese Army against American troops. Beard never slogged through the jungles of Southeast Asia, on guard against enemy soldiers aiming a durable Russian-made “Kalashnikov” at him.

But as an Air Force pilot, he often was summoned to bring down the heat. Flying an A-37 Dragonfly, a light attack aircraft capable of getting in and out of tight spots, Beard regularly led air strikes that supported troops on the ground.

Members of the 25th Infantry Division thanked Beard for having their backs. In 1969, when Beard was with the 604th Special Operations Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base, infantry leaders presented him an AK-47, confiscated from the enemy.

Beard, who later retired as a colonel, had to take the weapon apart to get it stateside.

“I brought the rifle home in my parachute bag,” reassembled it and kept it in a corner for 50 years, Beard said. “I figured it was time for somebody else to have it.”

In the mind of the 87-year-old, there’s only one place on Earth more significant than a cockpit.

That would be Virginia Tech, which Beard attended after he graduated from Spotsylvania High School in 1950. After four years with Tech’s Corps of Cadets, Beard was commissioned in the Air Force, where he spent the next 27 years flying 23 different types of aircraft. He completed 334 combat missions in Vietnam.

Beard returned to his alma mater on Friday and took with him the AK-47, which he presented to the Corps of Cadets Museum. The rifle was no longer usable as it was bolted to a wooden board and bears a plaque with Beard’s name.

“We’ve very pleased to have such a historical piece from such an accomplished alum,” said Samantha Riggin, museum curator. “The commandant [Maj. Gen. Randal Fullhart] was certainly happy to see him, and they had a nice, long chat.”

As he’s done repeatedly over the decades, Beard thought about those who died in Southeast Asia as he took one last look at the AK-47.

When he and his wife, Carolyn, were younger, they often visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and paid their respects to more than 58,000 people whose names were etched in stone.

“There were so many of them who didn’t make it home,” Beard said, remembering those who perished in jungles, at the hands of captors or in fiery plane crashes. “That’s what bothers you at night when you’re trying to sleep. You wonder, where are their kids? Where are their wives now?”

‘He’s my hero’

The Beards live west of Fredericksburg near his childhood home. He describes the still-standing home place as “three rooms and a path,” meaning a path to the outhouse, and says he didn’t have indoor plumbing until he was 16.

From the time he was 8 years old, watching planes fly over as he worked in the fields, Beard wanted to be piloting them. His parents had no formal education but urged him to seek one, so he worked his way through Virginia Tech.

He was a standout pitcher on the baseball team and was admitted to Tech’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. He made the school’s Aviation Hall of Fame three years later.

As an adult, Beard bought his parents land and a better house, which he inherited after they died. He still raises cattle on the same acreage his father did, joking that he had to retire from two jobs — the Air Force followed by 23 years as a manager with Caterpillar equipment — to be able to afford to be a farmer.

While he’s happy to talk about his time in the skies, Beard downplays the hazards he faced. Oh, sure, he once had to bail out of a Skyraider during a training exercise, and he called his wife about it only because the crumpled wreckage was going to be featured on the nightly news.

When aerial battles were underway, he did a technique called “jinking” that made his plane float like a butterfly and be a more difficult target than a straight-flying aircraft.

He wore a flak jacket while piloting fighter planes, even though the heavy gear made him sweat like mad.

His son, Jimmy Beard Jr., acknowledged “the dangers of flying” and marveled at his dad’s nerve and tenacity as well as the intensity he brought to every task. It didn’t matter if his father was pitching, flying or explaining the latest snowplow Caterpillar offered.

“Failure is not an option” wasn’t a catchy phrase; it was James Beard’s life motto.

“I get so emotional,” his son said, thinking about all the times his father might have perished, “because he’s my hero.”

A ‘Top Gun’ pilot

As for his Vietnam duty, Beard said he completed more than the 334 missions the government recorded. When his plane entered Cambodia, or other air spaces where then-President Richard Nixon denied having military forces, Beard said those bombing missions weren’t tallied.

Some 40 years after he returned from Asia, he bought a book in Fredericksburg and read that the Pentagon was told to devise a system to record different coordinates when American planes performed air strikes in places U.S. forces weren’t supposed to be.

“It was just so tragic, a failure, failure, failure,” Beard said about the war, which he refers to as a mistake that cost 58,000 lives.

Beard rescued prisoners shot down in combat, led air strikes and dropped napalm bombs during his first two tours. He went out on regular night missions, hitting targets along the honeycombed network of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

By 1969, the “fighter pilot who thought I was really Top Gun” was satisfied with his accomplishments. He assumed his work in ’Nam was done.

Then, he was rotated to B-52 bombers, an assignment that still makes him flinch.

“A fighter pilot is a different breed than a bomber pilot — than a crowd-killer hauler,” Beard said, adding he was not interested in hauling cargo.

But he vowed to do his best and led the squadrons at the North Michigan base to first-place wins in flying competitions.

When that duty eventually led to his third tour in Vietnam, flying B-52s, he came to respect the plane’s original payload. The bombers had been designed to carry nuclear weapons — “big hummers” that had 10 times the force of bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Beard’s duty also included teaching other pilots how to fly fighter planes and bombers, and when he’d had his fill of that, he led a maintenance command.

He came to enjoy his time with the planes as he learned all aspects of what it takes not just to fly an aircraft, but to keep it operational.

“It is easier to fly airplanes than to maintain them,” he said. “It’s a tough job, and it never ends.”

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Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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