It’s funny how some stories just come knocking at your door. Ron Crysler played an important role in the aftermath of the April 4, 1977 crash of Southern Airways Flight 242, a story I have written about extensively. After the accident, he drove the distraught wife of co-pilot Lyman W. Keele, Jr. to Kennestone Hospital, and then assisted in identifying her husband’s body. Three days later, he was one of the six pall-bearers at Keele’s funeral. After we met in 2013, he offered to help out in any way with my Southern 242 Oral History Project. I accepted, and one week later we met at his home north of Atlanta, GA for an interview.
Crysler and Keele both served as Navy pilots during the Vietnam War. Later they joined Southern Airways, and both men served as reservists flying out of Dobbins AFB. While we were rummaging through boxes of old photographs in Crysler’s basement, looking for photos of Keele, I found a Curtiss-Wright Corporation newsletter from January 28, 1944 with an article about Ron’s father C. James Crysler, a WWII fighter pilot who hailed from Kenmore, New York. It told the tale of a young man who originally shipped out to China in early 1942 as a B-25 pilot but ended up flying 15 combat missions with the 1st American Volunteer Group, known far and wide as the “Flying Tigers.”
Ron spoke proudly about his dad’s service during WWII, but said that despite the article in the newsletter, his time with the Flying Tigers had never been officially acknowledged. So I did a quick search of the pilot roster on the official “Flying Tiger Association” website and sure enough, his name did not appear on the final list.
I asked Ron if I could look at his father’s military records, and he agreed. After searching through a trunk full of old documents, I found his dad’s official Army “Separation Qualification Record,” which confirmed that he had flown 15 combat missions with the AVG in the month before the group disbanded in July of 1942. Somehow, his incredible story had been overlooked, and then completely forgotten.
Briefly told, C. James Crysler earned his wings in March of 1942 from the Air Corps Advanced Flying School at Luke Field in Phoenix, Arizona. Three months later, after completing his first bombing run over Burma, he and his crew were forced to bail out of their B-25 over the Burma/Chinese border while being pursued by the enemy. They hiked through the jungle for seven days, eventually making their way to Kunming, China, home base for the Flying Tigers. Lt. Crysler flew with the AVG from mid-June to early July of 1942. When they disbanded, he joined the 74th Fighter Squadron and flew an additional 68 combat missions throughout the China/Burma/India Theater, earning a chestful of medals for his time and trouble.
He passed on his passion for flying to his son Ron, who had his own distinguished career with the Navy. Ron graduated at the top of his class from Advanced Jets at Corpus Christi, TX, in 1969, flew 147 missions during the Vietnam War while stationed aboard the USS Oriskany, and then worked as a commercial airline pilot for 34 years before retiring. Ron helped Cathleen Keele after her husband died in 1977, and he assisted me in 2013 with my oral history project. This is my chance to return the favor and set the record straight about his father’s brief combat service with the “Flying Tigers.” Stay tuned.
–The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk–
Between 1941 and 1944, the P-40 played a critical role with allied air forces in China, North Africa, and the South Pacific. It was both sturdy and well armed, and had a higher dive speed than any Japanese fighter during the early years of WWII.