Fearless Flyer: John Weston - The Amazing Life of an Amazing Man
Special Note: John Edward Weston passed away on August 9, 2016, at the age of 99 after a long and honorable career with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. government. He retired from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security only last year after 28 years of service to the Bureau. The following is a profile of this remarkable man and his remarkable life first published in the May 2008 edition of Diplomatic Security’s internal newsletter, the DS Online News.
By Marcy Mason, DS Public Affairs
John Weston, a decorated veteran who served in three wars and piloted a B-17 aircraft on 31 missions, was a personal services contract coordinator in DS’s Contracts and Procurement Division. Weston worked for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security for 28 years. (U.S. Department of State photo)
John Weston would be considered remarkable by anyone’s standards. Long past the age of retirement, Weston works full-time for the Contracts and Procurement Division of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security -- a job he has held for the past 21 years. While most marvel at his stamina and the fact that working for DS is Weston’s fourth career, it’s only a small part of what is so striking about his story.
A decorated veteran who has served in three wars and piloted a B-17 aircraft on 31 missions, Weston has led an adventure-filled life. Shortly before the U.S. entered the Second World War, Weston was drafted into the Army in an artillery unit. Two months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he knew he wanted to be a pilot. “Like millions of other young men, I wanted to do something real. I wanted to fly and be a part of it,” said Weston, who quickly submitted his application to the U.S. Army Air Corps’ aviation cadet program.
A couple of months later, he was accepted. But then, the 23-year old recruit had to wait to get into training. “The country was going to war, but the government had few training facilities or airplanes to train with,” said Weston.
In September 1942, he was sent to Santa Maria, California where he went to primary flying school. Paired up with an instructor, Weston trained on an old Stearman bi-plane with an open cockpit, wearing a helmet and goggles. The plane had only the most basic instruments – an air speed indicator, an altimeter that indicated the plane’s height off the ground, and a magnetic compass. “He taught me how to bank, how to make turns, and how to take-off and land,” said Weston. After nearly nine hours of training, the instructor let his pupil fly solo. “I’d never been in an airplane before that,” explained Weston, but I’m not unique. A lot of people did the same thing. It was the thrill of a lifetime.”
From there, Weston took his basic flight training and learned more about instrument flying, night flying, and flying cross-country. Then he was sent for advanced training in Marfa, Texas and flew multi-engine planes. Weston received his wings when he graduated in June 1943, and then went to transition school in Hobbs, New Mexico where he learned how to fly a four-engine B-17 long-range heavy bomber. Nicknamed the “Flying Fortress” because of its multiple machine gun installations, the B-17 could carry up to three tons of bombs, twice the amount of other aircraft at that time, and travel twice the distance without refueling. As such, the B-17 became America’s main strategic weapon in Europe during World War II.
Nicknamed the “Flying Fortress” because of its multiple machine gun installations, the B-17 was America’s main strategic weapon in Europe during World War II. The B-17, which was used to make precision daylight attacks on German industrial and military targets, carried more bombs over much greater distances than contemporary aircraft at the time. (Wikipedia photo)
In February 1944, Weston was assigned to the 381st Bomber Group in Ridgewell, England, on the outskirts of Cambridge. As a pilot, Weston was allowed to name his plane. A newlywed, he dubbed the aircraft Dream Baby. “When I left, I thought my wife was pregnant. It turned out she wasn’t,” said Weston.
The pilot had another surprise in store. Prior to Weston’s arrival in England, B-17 crews were required to fly 25 missions and then they could go home. “When I arrived on the scene that’s what I expected to do,” explained Weston. “I was there probably two weeks and then they raised the mission level to 30 because they were short of crews. But I flew 31 missions,” he said.
This was no small feat. Flying the B-17 missions was dangerous and thousands of American fliers lost their lives. “Every aspect of it was frightening,” said Weston. “The toughest part from my perspective was taking off at four o’clock in the morning for an eight or 10 hour mission. It was dark, the runway lights were low, and often it was raining,” he said. “There were 18 airplanes in our group and we had to take off in 30 second intervals. On one of our missions just as I was pushing up the throttles, I saw this big ball of fire in front of me. The plane ahead of us had crashed. It had gotten off the ground, but without being able to see the horizon, it was easy for a pilot to get vertigo unless he really concentrated on the flight instruments.”
But according to Weston, the most terrifying aspect of flying a B-17 was never knowing if his aircraft would be hit by the enemy. “Once we started a bomb run, which was about 25 miles from the target, there was no turning away from it. That’s when you’d see bursts of yellow and red flak being fired by the German gunners on the ground, trying to bracket our altitude” he said. The air would be filled with flying jagged metal. “It was bad enough having those fighters coming at you with their cannons winking,” said Weston. “But the flak was really terrifying because you never knew where it would hit.”
Weston flew his missions primarily over Germany and occupied France to bomb factories, air fields, and industrial manufacturing plants. His longest mission was 11-1/2 hours. “Nobody believes me, but it’s official in my flying records,” he said. Weston’s initial target, located in a remote part of Germany on the Baltic Sea, was obscured by cloud cover. “Rather than expend the bombs, we flew down to hit Posnan, Poland instead,” he said. Then we turned around and came home.”
Coming Back Alive
Standing with members of his B-17 officer crew in February 1944, before a mission, John Weston (third from left), was a new pilot assigned to the 381st Bomb Group in Ridgewell, England. The officers (left to right) Morrie Henderson, co-pilot; Ralph Putman, navigator; and Clifford Collum, bombardier, were crew members on Weston’s plane, Dream Baby. (Photo from private collection)
While many of the B-17 Flying Fortresses suffered casualties, Weston was fortunate. His aircraft always came back with everyone onboard alive. “After one mission, I counted 50 holes in the airplane,” he said. There was also a time when a shell hit his plane and broke through the upper window, grazing Weston’s oxygen mask. “It was rattling around inside the cockpit and I could hear this hissing noise,” said Weston, who asked his co-pilot if he were bleeding. “I didn’t know if it had hit me or not.” As it turned out, Weston was lucky. He wasn’t wounded. “If it had been two inches to the left, it would have got my eye,” he said. “But it was funny in a sense. The crew overheard me on the interphone and thought the pilot was bleeding, and they started to reach for their parachutes.”
The flying conditions in the B-17 bombers was also somewhat harrowing. The airplanes weren’t pressurized, and at the flying altitudes, the cold temperatures were numbing. “At 25,000 feet, you’ve got about 30 seconds without oxygen,” explained Weston. “Of course, we always wore our oxygen masks. We also had electric suits that we plugged-in that were wired. Supposedly, they were going to keep us warm, but most of the time they didn’t work,” recalled Weston. “
After the War
After the war, Weston wanted to become a commercial pilot, but in 1946, the airlines wouldn’t hire him. “They didn’t seem interested in military pilots at that time,” he said. So instead, he headed home to New Britain, Connecticut, and got a job as a charter pilot at a local airport. In 1947, he joined the Air National Guard, a reserve component of the newly formed U.S. Air Force. “It was like being in the service again except you didn’t have all the restrictions that were associated with it,” said Weston.
Then, after the Korean War started in the summer of 1950, some Air National Guard units were reactivated. Weston’s unit was recalled in February 1951. He was stationed in Japan in an operational support role. At the end of his tour, Weston decided to stay in the Air Force and make it his career. He remained in Japan until 1955, and was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, a deterrent force created during the Cold War to keep the Russians at bay. Weston returned to the United States and was stationed in Little Rock, Arkansas where he was trained to fly a B-47 at the newly opened Air Force base. With the new jet bomber, Weston went back to operational active flying. “Each Strategic Air Command crew had a war mission that had to be memorized and trained on,” explained Weston. “If the whistle ever blew to go to war, each of us knew exactly what we were going to do.”
After finishing a preflight inspection of their B-47 six-engine, jet bomber aircraft, Weston, the pilot, (right) and his navigator, Ed Jennison, are ready to fly. At the time of the photo, 1958, Weston was part of the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command. The B-47 was the precursor for commercial jets. (Photo courtesy of Little Rock Air Force Base)
But the U.S. didn’t go to war with Russia, and in 1963, Weston was detailed as a United States Air Force Officer to work on aircraft reconnaissance programs for the CIA. He was part of a small, select team who were chosen because of their air operations expertise. A few years later, in 1969, Weston was tapped again for another tour of duty. This time he was sent to Viet Nam as an operations officer, planning and controlling support missions for aircraft that did supply and ammunition drops. In 1970, Weston returned to Langley and resumed his work for the Agency. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1973, but continued to work on projects for the CIA as a civilian until 1978.
Too Young to Retire
At that point, Weston decided to retire, but he soon changed his mind. “I tried it for a year,” he said. “I played golf three to four times a week, and it really got boring. I decided to go back to work.” Weston still had a security clearance and was hired by E-Systems, an aeronautical engineering firm, where he worked as a technical writer. He also went back to school at night to finish his undergraduate degree in English at George Mason University in Virginia.
In 1987, two years after the Bureau of Diplomatic Security was created, Weston was hired as a technical writer/editor to work in contract administration. Today, as one of 16 who work in DS’s Contracts and Procurement Division, he administers contracts for individuals who are hired by the U.S. Government. Currently, DS has nearly 140 personal service contractors onboard. “They have options in their contracts, which have to be updated every year,” said Weston. “The work is highly detailed, much more than people realize.”
When asked why he stays at DS, Weston, who has a razor-sharp mind and is spry for his years, has a ready answer. “I want to keep it going up here,” he said with a smile as he points to his head. “I belong to a group that goes to lunch once a quarter and these guys are really retired. They dress tacky and all they can talk about is something they heard on TV. They’re not up to speed with today’s world,” said Weston who is smartly clad in a Polo dress shirt and khaki slacks.
Secret to a Long Life
As for his secret to longevity, Weston doesn’t necessarily attribute it to good genes. He said he exercises, but not a lot, and does try to watch his diet. “I try to stay away from fatty foods and eat what’s supposed to be good for you,” he said. “I’ve also got to say that I have a martini a day, sometimes two.” Most of all, Weston said that he believes it has to do with staying active. “If you stay active, you’ll stay young,” he said. “My son James was born when I was 58-years-old. That kept me active for a lot of years, believe me.” Today, James, who followed his father to DS, is the special assistant to the Bureau’s Deputy Executive Director.
In his spare time, Weston enjoys spending time with his wife, Ruth, and has a passion for playing golf. Rather amazingly, he can make the claim of having nearly shot his age in the sport. “When I was 86 years old, I went out one day and almost shot an 86,” he said. As you get older, it gets easier in a sense because of the numbers. But it gets tougher physically. I’m not sure I could do it today.”
While Weston insists he is not a hero, he has received several medals for bravery. After completing a combat tour in WWII, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for the missions that he flew. “I didn’t think I was very brave at the time,” he said. The aircraft commander also received an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters. The Clusters were given for successive missions. For his work at the Agency, Weston was awarded a Legion of Merit, a medal of high standing. And for his tour in Viet Nam, he was given a Bronze Star in addition to many theater and campaign ribbons that were awarded throughout the years.
Weston feels fortunate to have lived so long. “I really enjoy being with people, albeit a lot of them are much younger than I am and see things differently,” he said. “But life is a continual learning experience and thankfully, I can say I’ve learned a lot.