Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, James Louis DeVoss (Jim) attended the University of Michigan, graduating with a B.S. Degree in Zoology and Chemistry. A bachelors degree was necessary to apply for and be accepted to attend the United States Air Force’s Officer Training School at Lackland AFB, Texas.
Upon graduation, Jim was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He then attended the Air Force’s Undergraduate Pilot Training Program (UPT) at Randolph AFB, Texas. Upon earning his Air Force wings, Jim was assigned Combat Crew Training where he trained in the F-105 Thunderchief (Thud) for combat missions over North Vietnam and Northern Laos.
On June 16, 1969, Jim took off as Kingfish 1, flying lead of a flight of four Thuds on what he described as a “typical mission”–his 71st since arriving in Southeast Asia. Jim and his flight team were to bomb roads and vehicles used as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route of the North Vietnamese Army. After dropping his remaining bombs at their second target, Jim rolled in behind his wingman to cover him on his final run. While there was heavy anti-aircraft fire in the area, Jim didn’t recall feeling anything striking his aircraft.
“I didn’t see or hear anything… I was on the radio telling the guys to rejoin so we could hit the post strike tanker to get some gas and go home when, all of a sudden, the nose of the plane started to weave and it was clear my ability to control the plane was gone. I thought, 'This can’t be happening to me!' But it was…”
Jim fought to keep control and stay in the air but found his controls becoming unresponsive. Realizing he had taken a hit to the aircraft’s hydraulic systems, he began to run through the checklist for ejecting. After jettisoning his wing tanks and other external stores to reduce weight and drag, the aircraft nosed over unexpectedly into a steep dive and began rapidly gaining speed in a totally uncontrollable condition.
As the pilots in his flight team screamed, “Get out! GET OUT!” over the radio, Jim surveyed his situation and found his aircraft had already greatly exceeded safe ejection speed. With no alternative other than to ride it into the ground, he was forced to punch out at over 700 miles per hour. As he ejected from the aircraft, the shock of the high-speed wind broke all the bones in his left arm, dislocated both his shoulders and hips, and separated both of his knees. Badly injured, thinking his left arm had actually been torn off, he maintained consciousness and continued to follow the ejection sequence as he’d been trained.
Although his parachute deployed successfully, due to his injuries, he found he was totally unable to control his impact with the ground. Landing hard and flat-out, he was impaled on bamboo shoots growing in the area where he landed. Despite all of this, he was still able to administer basic first aid and deploy his emergency locator beacon and radio. He contacted his flight team, and they began to immediately coordinate search and rescue efforts while flying cover over his position.
When a pilot goes down in combat, their rescue is considered “all hands” and “top priority,” meaning that every available resource is diverted to the effort. Up to Jim's incident, about 1,000 pilots had been rescued, but no rescue had been documented. Uniquely, to rectify this, one of the crew members on the helicopter that responded to Jim’s emergency was trained in the use of film equipment, and, for the first time ever, the entire mission was recorded. Later, the Air Force determined that “Lt. DeVoss’ survival was largely due to his precise adherence to correct emergency procedures,” and the film taken during his rescue was used in an Air Force rescue documentary and training film, Faces of Rescue, which is still in use today (and linked from the MEDIA page of this site).
For the past 48 years, Jim has shown the film and lectured for countless groups and organizations free of charge, emphasizing the depth of training of each U.S. Air Force Pilot, and his own personal patriotic dedication to our country and our military forces. Jim speaks of his “heroes”--those who risked their lives to save his; his “healers,” all those who worked so diligently and for so long to repair his injuries and give him back a relatively normal physical life; and his “enablers,” all Americans who believe in what he calls the “American Philosophy.” Jim knows that in America, and to Americans, there is absolutely nothing more precious than life itself, and, also, that when one’s life is saved, then best quality of life is similarly enabled and protected whenever possible. As Jim says, if his enablers “didn’t walk, talk, eat, sleep, dream, breathe, love and LIVE THE PHILOSOPHY, I wouldn’t be doing any one of those things I am able to do today!"
Lt. DeVoss was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Air Force Presidential Citation, the National Defense Medal, The Vietnam Service Medal, the Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal during his service.
Unable to continue to fly due to the impact of his injuries, Jim pursued a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) from Western Michigan University, and then joined the Amway Corporation, where he was employed from 1972 to 2005. During the last 15 years of his business career, Jim was responsible for the creation and initial management of nine American-owned, locally operated Middle and Eastern Europe affiliates of the company: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Greece, Romania, Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
Jim also did the initial evaluations for Croatia, Bulgaria, Israel, Egypt and Vietnam. Regarding the latter, Jim likes to point out that he “stepped off an airplane in Hanoi on THE DAY on which he had lived exactly as long after his shoot down as he had lived before. Two years later, his second evaluation visit to Hanoi commenced on June 16, 1996, the 27th anniversary of his shoot down!”
On May 13, 2017, Jim was honored by induction into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame. According to the narrative during the induction, his enshrinement resulted from his accomplishments as a Combat Pilot, Motivational Speaker and Global Business Manager.
Jim has been married for 50 years to his “brilliant, beautiful, and gracious wife, Roberta, the best caregiver in the universe.” They have two children; Dànielle Nicole and Jason. Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, PhD, is a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. Jason James DeVoss, PhD, is a research scientist in the Bay Area of California. Roberta and Jim have two beautiful grandchildren, Calleigh and Tilden, and four grandcats (Mac, Cheese, Meatballosaurus Rex, and Bravo Charlie).
Bottom photo credit: Leo Cumings
[Jim DeVoss, 1969; Jim DeVoss with second child, Jason, 1976; Jason with first child, Tilden, 2006; Jim DeVoss with first grandchild, Tilden, 2006]
THE BACK STORY: "IT ALMOST DIDN'T HAPPEN"
Growing up, I had two dreams: being a physician and flying airplanes. I thought I would be the first Air Force flying flight surgeon.
The first dream started the very first time an airplane was seen in the air. The fascination began when that happened and never dissipated. The second dream came about because of an experience my middle sister had. As a youngster, Charlene (“Chuckie”) tried to ride her bigger sister’s bicycle. Our driveway had a slope, and when she headed down she could barely steer and could not reach the brake pedals. Thus, she went directly across the street and when she hit the parked car, her leg went between the body of the car and the car’s rear bumper. When she fell, her leg was horribly bent.
The result was osteomyelitis, a form of decaying of the bones. Nine different times during thirteen extended hospital stays surgeons had to cut open her legs--to the bone--then scrape off the decayed matter. They then had to pack the incision, removing the packing on a daily basis and repack the incision slightly looser so that the healing could happen from the “inside out.” Still, except for unimaginable pain and incredible scarring, she retained full ability to walk with neither a limp nor any change to a normal gait. Wow, did I ever want to be able to do something, anything, like that for someone!
Fast forward to during my senior year at the University of Michigan. I sent applications to several medical schools, and was granted an interview at the University of Michigan Medical School. However, I wasn’t actually accepted at any of the medical schools to which I applied. Graduation came and went. I relocated back home. While also looking for a summer job, I visited the Air Force Recruiting Office.
The Recruiting Officer was terrific. He told me I would have to take a battery of tests, accomplished with accolades of “Wow, you did outstanding; I see a future Air Force pilot here!” I completed a flight physical at Selfridge Air Force Base just north of Detroit, which resulted in more accolades. The paper work was processed. The waiting began. Meanwhile, I did work as a “white ticket” ironworker. White ticket merely meant that I would work as long as needed, but priority for any and all jobs would, of course, go to the union card holder journeymen. There was lots of construction going on at the time, and it was summer, so I was never without work.
Every other week I would check in with the recruiter. He would consistently remind me that I needed to “be patient; these things take time!” In time, I received a notice to report for a U.S. Army draft physical at an installation in Detroit, Michigan. It was not as thorough as the flight physical; I passed. The recruiter said, “Great, keep waiting!”
Several more weeks passed. The next thing I received was notification to report to the local Greyhound bus station at 0630 hours on a particular Tuesday six weeks in the future. From there I, and others, would be transported to Detroit where I would be inducted into the United States Army. When informed of this, the recruiter said, “Should not be any problem, plenty of time, let me do some checking.” Two weeks passed without hearing anything. One month and counting.
I heard nothing for two weeks. When contacted again, the recruiter informed me that my Air Force application was in Washington, D.C., and had just been rejected. When I asked why, he informed me that I was two pounds overweight at the time of my physical. I quickly informed him that since starting to work construction, I had lost twenty pounds! He said he would check to see if a doctor’s confirmation of that would change the rejection. I immediately went to our family physician for the confirmation. It was sent off to Washington.
One week later (and one week before the Greyhound date), I had heard nothing. In literal desperation, I contacted the office of then Congressman Gerald R. Ford. I was told they would check into it, and I should be patient. I was patient, for two days, then started daily calls to the Congressman’s office. Ultimately, it was the Monday before the Tuesday Greyhound reporting date that I spoke to someone who said, “Stay by your telephone, someone will call you before the end of the day!” I asked, “The end of the workday or the end of the day?”
Just before the end of the workday, an individual from the Congressman’s office called and informed me someone from the local Draft Board would be calling “before the end of the day.” She also informed me that the confirmation of the weight loss had been received, that it had resulted in my application for the Air Force being accepted, and I would have written confirmation by the end of the week.
It was 9pm that evening that I did get a call from a very disgruntled lady who told me, “young man, you will report to the Draft Board office at 0800 tomorrow morning. You will sign a document that states, in no uncertain terms, that in thirty days you will report for induction into the United States Army.” I asked for the address and office number, received it, and assured her I would be there. The line disconnected.
The next morning I reported as ordered to the Draft Board office. That morning at the Greyhound station my name was, indeed, called. I was informed of that by individuals who were very good friends of my Mom and Dad, there to see their own son off. They admitted their only thought when no one responded to the calling of my name was, “Knew it; that University of Michigan kid took off for Canada!” Yes, things on Michigan’s campus during the time of the Vietnam War were tense with lots of protest rallies! But, no, I hadn’t taken part in any of them.
At the Draft Board office I approached the lady whom I presumed had made the telephone call to me the evening before. For sure, if eyes could throw daggers, hers would have! She confirmed who I was, spun a document around so I could see it and pointed to “sign and date.” I did that, and she looked at it, looked at me, and pointed to the door. I said, “Excuse me, Ma’am, I know what I signed. However, if I have received confirmation of being accepted to join another branch of the service before the thirty days are over, do I still have to report?” I will never forget her response; she said, “No, and that would be really good as we for sure do not want you!” It was much later, when I was actually in the Air Force, that I learned that you never, ever go to any political entity or political individual to try to overturn something. Of course, I felt I had to and I did, but the results, with her at least, were most obvious. She was most happy to not have anything more to do with me.
As it turned out, I was able to continue to work until the following January, when I was ordered to report to Lakeland Air Force Base to attend Officer Training School (OTS). One of the companies even made me a “Foreman” over two other union workers (and neither one of those guys complained) so I could earn a bit more before joining the Air Force.
When I did receive confirmation of acceptance for OTS, I was told that I would be assigned to Air Traffic Controller schooling following successful graduation. I also received a letter from Congressman Ford’s office (signed by him) that went into detail on how only a small percentage of individuals going into the Air Force are actually accepted for Pilot Training, and, however, every position as an Air Force officer is fulfilling and gratifying, etc., etc., etc. When I did get to OTS, I learned that fourteen of the sixteen in our flight within the class were going into Pilot Training--and I was not one of them!
Jumping ahead, when fifteen of us graduated, three of us were going into Pilot Training, and, obviously, I was one of them. During the very start of OTS I drafted a letter to the base commander. It explained how I so dearly wanted to fly, how I had passed all the required tests, how so many others were going to Pilot Training but I was not one of them, but should be. It was four pages long! It was about a week after I submitted it to where I thought it should go that I was called into the office of our Flight Training Officer, Captain Jackson. After the OTS formalities of being invited into his office, saluting, stating “Reporting as ordered, SIR!” Captain Jackson held up my letter asking, “Did you write this book?” I admitted that I had. He then handed me a one paragraph document asking, “And does this say the same thing?” Again, I could not help but respond with, “Well, Yes, Sir, but not nearly so eloquently.” He groaned while saying, “Just sign the thing, Trainee!” I did, and he simply said, “Dismissed!”
Another physical, a dental checkup, and an order to report to a Lieutenant. The Lieutenant reviewed a couple of documents in a file on me he had and then presented another form to me to sign. I did and said, “Now what, Sir?” He merely said, “Nothing. That’s it. You are going to Pilot Training.” I was elated!
And, once the paperwork was over, I was invited to briefings to which other Pilot Training candidates had been going. They showed films of what was going on in Vietnam, especially the skies over North Vietnam. They talked about how many pilots were most likely to be stuck in the back seat of the F4 Phantoms and how many of them, along with their front seaters never came back. They also clarified that “even given that, however, the F105 pilots are faring even worse!” Seeing film of the F105 and what it was doing made up my mind right there. The “Thud” was the fighter I wanted to fly! For the other twelve in our flight previously mentioned, however, it was what they saw and heard in those briefings that made them decide they didn’t want Pilot Training.
For me, I entered Pilot Training at Vance AFB, in Enid, Oklahoma. I completed the T-41 initial phase there and then went to Randolph AFB in San Antonio, Texas, for the T-37 and T-38 phases. I was very, very proud to be a member of Class 68-F. We called ourselves the “First of the Finest,” as we were the first class to complete Undergraduate Pilot Training and receive our wings at that base. I completed the F-105 “School for Combat” training at McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas. I had gone from “almost being inducted into the Army” to achieving what I most wanted! It was never easy, but it was incredibly fulfilling--and a WHOLE LOT OF FUN. I never regretted my decisions for even a single second!