LBJ’s personal pilot—one of the few to fly Air Force One and simultaneously hold a full-time job in the White House—offers vivid recollections of the thirty-sixth president.
When Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to go somewhere, there was no stopping him. This dynamic president called for Air Force One as others summon a taxi—at a moment's notice, whatever the hour or the weather. And the man who made sure that LBJ got his ride was General James U. Cross, the president's hand-picked pilot, top military assistant, and personal confidante. One of the few Air Force One pilots to have a position, simultaneously, in the White House, General Cross is also the only member of LBJ's inner circle who has not publicly offered his recollections of the president. In this book, he goes on the record, creating a fascinating, behind-the-scenes portrait of America's complex, often contradictory, always larger-than-life thirty-sixth president.
General Cross tells an engrossing story. In addition to piloting Air Force One around the globe, he served President Johnson in multiple capacities, including directing the Military Office in the White House; managing a secret two-million-dollar presidential emergency fund; supervising the presidential retreat at Camp David, the president's entire transportation fleet, and the presidential bomb shelters; running the White House Mess; hiring White House social aides, including the president's future son-in-law, Charles Robb; and writing condolence letters to the families of soldiers killed in Vietnam. This wide-ranging, around-the-clock access to President Johnson allowed Cross to witness events and share moments that add color and depth to our understanding of America's arguably most demanding and unpredictable president.
- Chapter One. The Longest Day
- Chapter Two. The Early Years
- Chapter Three. Bringing Home a Hero
- Chapter Four. Joining the Inner Circle
- Chapter Five. Angel Is Airborne
- Chapter Six. The Shadow of Vietnam
- Chapter Seven. The Enforcer
- Chapter Eight. Visiting Vietnam and Southeast Asia
- Chapter Nine. Around the World, Part One
- Chapter Ten. Around the World, Part Two
- Chapter Eleven. Going to War
- Chapter Twelve. Farewell to a Friend
- Author's Note
Lyndon Johnson rode Air Force One with total confidence. He was the ultimate back-seat pilot, ordering last-minute trips to sometimes secret destinations, including a circumnavigation of the globe that allowed the flight crew mere catnaps. No president before or since has given Air Force One quite the same impetuous workouts.
And I was his enabler.
My Secret Service code name was Sawdust. I figure I got that name because I was a country boy from the sawmill and piney woods country of southern Alabama who never lost his backwoods drawl. But it just as easily could have applied to what was left of me after some of those uncomfortable times when Mr. Johnson took me to the woodshed with his legendary temper fully loaded and cocked. Lyndon Johnson only chewed on those he respected. If he didn't like you, he ignored you or gave you the silent treatment. He must have liked me a lot. In fact, he became a father figure to me after my own father died when I was thirty-seven.
I was President Johnson's Air Force One pilot. I bucked the inviolate military chain of command to fly where and when he wanted. Protocol, rules, and red tape couldn't stop us. We did it his way, obstacles be damned. He wasn't always the most pleasant personality to be around, but he was the best co-pilot in adventure anyone could ever have had.
Flying was just the half of it. I was the only Air Force One pilot in history to have one foot in the cockpit and the other in the White House. I flew the plane and joined the political ground crew, too, as the full-time Armed Forces aide to the president with an office in the East Wing. Double the duty, double the fun. And I juggled those two full-time jobs on one military salary, of course. No free lunch, either. I had to pay for my meals aboard Air Force One.
As Armed Forces aide and Director of the White House Military Office, I had to provide liaison with the Pentagon; supervise Camp David, the presidential mountain retreat outside Washington; corral the presidential yachts, helicopters, planes, and cars; run the White House Mess; line up military officers to be social escorts at White House functions (Chuck Robb fell in love with and married the president's daughter Lynda, after I brought him into the White House as a social aide); supervise and provision the secret underground bomb shelters for the president, his key staff, and his cabinet; write the presidential condolence letters to families of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam; maintain plans for the funerals of all living former presidents; and more.
Day after day, I handled my high-level duties along with any personal requests that came in from the president or his family. When Lynda and Chuck decided to marry, they told me first and asked for advice on how to break the news to the president and Lady Bird. I flew to Dallas on the president's privately owned King Air with a handful of Johnson jewels so that Stanley Marcus, the CEO and president of Neiman Marcus, could appraise them and craft them into rings, brooches, and necklaces as presents for Lady Bird and the Johnson daughters. I ran interference with the pesky San Antonio tailor who made the president's famous khaki ranch clothes and often phoned the White House hoping to win government contracts in return. I flew to Mexico to look at property for the president. I even had to keep Johnson's cattle from using his Texas ranch runway as an outhouse. I never knew what task might be thrown my way. So I made it a point to be available at all times, even if it meant lurking just out of sight in case the president called my name. I lived in a constant state of readiness.
I've often been asked what a typical or routine day at the White House was like. There was just no such thing. But people can't stop wondering what the military pilot of Air Force One did all day in a business suit at the White House. Perhaps if I replay the highlights of one random day, it will become clear why my job description wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. Take February 29, 1968. It was Leap Day, and that pretty much describes what I did all day. I thought it would never end.
No sooner did I arrive at my East Wing office than the president summoned me to the family quarters on the third floor. His bedroom had three televisions and a full view of the Washington Monument—behind bullet-proof glass. A couple of chairs were arranged near his big, canopied bed, but he had long since finished with any bedside conferences with other aides that morning. He was already in the middle of his morning shave, but he was still conducting meetings. I was relieved that this was not going to be one of those days when I had to towel off his backside. "You don't need to flight train today," he said. "There's too much going on!" The president knew I had scheduled my weekly air time with the crew of Air Force One, because I had sent him a memo the day before describing my plans. I always called or sent him a memo anytime I expected to be away from my White House office.
The memo, on a 3 x 5 card, had three boxes the president could check: "Yes," "No," and "See me." He had checked "Yes," so before I left home that morning I had called one of my co-pilots, Colonel Paul Thornhill, at Andrews Air Force Base to set up a four-hour flight after lunch. Now we were grounded.
The president was worried about his son-in-law, Pat Nugent. Even before Pat married Luci Baines Johnson on August 6, 1966, letters had poured into the White House from Americans who thought he ought to be in Vietnam with the tens of thousands of other young Americans in uniform. Pat had been in the Wisconsin Air National Guard and had been roundly criticized for transferring to a Washington unit when he became engaged to Luci. After the wedding, the Nugents had moved to Austin and Pat had transferred once again, this time to the Texas Air National Guard. Every move brought criticism from those who thought he had received special treatment as a weekend warrior. The most vicious letters came from family members with loved ones fighting in Vietnam. I remember one that quoted the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." The letter writer accused the president of pulling strings for his son-in-law even though he once had said if he had a son he would be proud to have him serve in Vietnam.
The president, always mindful of bad publicity, could have been twisting Pat's arm and trying to persuade him to go overseas, but I doubt it. Chuck Robb, a Marine captain who had married Lynda Johnson on December 9, 1967, already had orders to go to Vietnam in March. Eventually Pat decided he didn't want to be left behind. His own brother had gone twice to Southeast Asia. The president wanted me to quietly arrange to have Pat transferred back to his former Guard unit at Andrews, the 113th Tactical Fighter Wing. According to rumors, that unit was to be activated for duty in Vietnam. The president wanted me to "make it look right and be discreet." He instructed me to "be very close with this." I had no problems with arranging a special transfer for Pat, whom I considered a friend and an upstanding young man. I wouldn't go through normal military channels. In my opinion, too many young American men were refusing to fight and engaging in all kinds of fraudulent schemes to get out of the draft, so I didn't see anything wrong with pulling a few strings to get someone into Vietnam.
Earlier in the war, Lynda had sought my help in getting her then-boyfriend, Hollywood actor George Hamilton, assigned for helicopter training. But the man with the perpetual tan never made it to Vietnam. He won a deferment based on his mother's need for his economic support. The public outcry had been relentless. Now Pat was ready to go to war, and if transferring him to Andrews helped him get there, I had no qualms about working with the Pentagon to make it happen. The potential for accusations of favoritism and special treatment didn't bother me. I told the president I would get it done.
Then the president told me why I couldn't be airborne after lunch. He had finally decided to take a vacation. "Do we have any military resorts or beach areas secure enough for me to stay for a few days?" he asked. "I want to soak up some sun and maybe play a little golf." There was no doubt that the president needed to get away. I had been thinking he ought to go stay at his ranch for a month or so. The Vietnam War and the drumbeat of protest against it were taking a toll on him. He not only looked tired, he sounded tired. Everyone close to him—family, friends, and staff—had been urging him to take a vacation. He'd finally given in. Looking back, that could have been a sign that the president had already made up his mind not to seek reelection. The country was becoming more divided every day, and nothing he said or did seemed to help. In private, he looked like a defeated man. I know he was an anguished man. Just one month later, he would announce his decision not to run.
"I believe the State Department has a facility in the Virgin Islands," I told him. "I'll have to check it out. There's also a beach club at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. And Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico could probably accommodate your visit. I know that base, and I've been there before. It can be secured."
He wanted to leave the next morning for Houston, then go to Beaumont, Texas, for a dinner in honor of Democratic Representative Jack Brooks. From there, he wanted to go to Marietta, Georgia, for the rollout of the new Lockheed C-5A Galaxy transport plane, the largest airplane in the world at the time and only eighteen yards shorter than a football field. "Find a spot to vacation for a few days," he said. "And by the way, you call General McConnell and tell him the president wants him to come along with us." McConnell was chief of the Air Force.
I made some calls to confirm Ramey as our destination and walked with the president to the White House theater, where he was meeting with the nation's governors, and then on to the Oval Office.
Just as I returned to my office, George Christian, the presidential press secretary, was calling. Word was getting out about tomorrow's possible trip. Rumors had been rampant the last couple of days about a trip with several possible destinations. The president liked to keep his trips under wraps until the last possible moment—even from me sometimes. And I was the pilot! There had been times when I had such short notice I barely had time to call my crew, order them to "Fire up the big bird!," and then dash to the Marine helicopter on the South Lawn to ride with the president to Andrews Air Force Base. Fortunately my crew always had the engines running, and I was two steps ahead of the president in jumping into my cockpit seat. On the night of his election in 1964, however, I received such short notice we were leaving town that I couldn't find my socks in the hotel and had no time to search. I don't think the president ever found out he had the only barefoot Air Force One pilot in history.
I told George everything I knew. Those of us in the inner circle tried to keep one another informed. We could never rely on the president to be forthright with all of us all of the time, so we had to pass the word among ourselves. "Now, George, I surely wouldn't want you to broadcast this around," I said.
George had the tough job of trying to keep the press from finding out too much while giving away just enough information that they would be packed and ready for takeoff. I heard later that the press never got the word to pack summer clothes for the trip to Puerto Rico, and they were fuming. "What kind of crap is this?" one of them growled. Johnson always told us he didn't want advance word of travels getting out because he might change his plans on a whim, and a public cancellation would raise all kinds of rumors about the state of the presidency. I didn't care what the press did or didn't know. I just needed to know whether a press plane was going or whether a press pool would be riding on Air Force One.
I called Colonel Ray Cole, an Air Force friend of mine in the Pentagon, about getting Pat to Vietnam. Cole worked for General McConnell, who was someone willing to help whenever I called. In fact, when I was named White House military aide in 1965, McConnell told me, "There are going to be a lot of folks here with long knives out for your ass, Cross. And I'm the only guy who can save you. If you need help, you call me." And I always did. I had called McConnell the day before and advised him that Pat Nugent wanted to go to Vietnam. He told me to work it out with Colonel Cole. Cole said the best way to proceed was to have Pat write a letter to the commander of his old Guard unit at the 113th Tactical Fighter Wing and request a transfer to the unit and orders for active duty. This sort of thing would cause some head wagging, but not much.
I returned a call from a contractor at our Air Force One maintenance facility in New York about eliminating the arm of the couch in the stateroom on the plane. The president never seemed to stop tinkering with all of his assets. If it wasn't modifications on his plane, it was the shower at his ranch—he wanted a high-pressure stream of water, and he wanted it yesterday. I always had a handful of renovations to worry about.
I called Major Donald Short, another of my Air Force One co-pilots, and gave him the itinerary for the trip to Texas, Georgia, and Puerto Rico. He needed to get started on checking runway lengths because the Boeing 707 used as Air Force One ordinarily needed 6,000 feet to land. We had to make sure we would have the landing strip we needed, or find alternate airports. He had to look at weather forecasts and plane weights and start calculating. We didn't have a moment to lose.
The president was expecting me in the Oval Office so we could leave together for the farewell ceremony for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who after seven years at the Pentagon was taking a job as president of the World Bank. The public ceremony was scheduled to begin at noon at the Pentagon. Unfortunately for all of us, the festivities were going to be outdoors, and it was rainy and cold enough to make your teeth chatter. I didn't pull on my long johns that morning because I thought I was going to be flying all afternoon in the cozy cockpit of Air Force One, where a month earlier I had had my flight engineer, Chief Master Sergeant Joe Chappell, install a special little heater for my feet. I knew the McNamara ceremony was going to be fairly short, but I hadn't expected a cold rain to be falling. My uniform suddenly felt mighty thin.
The day before, I had prepared a nearly minute-by-minute script for the president to follow during the ceremony. Little did I know how badly we would be thrown off schedule, or that our mishap would be front-page news the next day. The New York Times would later refer to it as "a decidedly untidy last day at the Pentagon." We were supposed to arrive at the Pentagon at straight-up noon. My playbook was specific and orderly and, I thought, left no room for surprises. It would allow Johnson to make his obligatory appearance, review the troops, offer some short remarks, and be on his way—all in just twenty-one minutes. In and out. Short and sweet. Just the way the president liked to handle these ceremonial duties. Every move was choreographed: "12:01 p.m. The president proceeds through cordon to reviewing stand (Note: During walk, four ruffles and flourishes, 'Hail to the Chief,' and a flyover of Air Force and Navy aircraft will take place). 12:03 p.m. nineteen-gun salute for Secretary McNamara, followed by review of the troops. The president will walk with Honor Guard Commander and Secretary McNamara—president is on the right." And so on. I worried about what would happen to the flyover of twenty planes if the president did not arrive on time. The planes, including the new F-111 fighter bomber that had not yet seen combat, required seventeen minutes to rendezvous for the flyover because of air traffic in the Washington area. If they were turned away from the Pentagon at the last minute because the ceremony was off schedule, it would take another seventeen minutes to re-form for the flyover pattern. And I knew I'd catch unshirted hell from Johnson if he had to wait anywhere near that long just to be saluted by air.
Fortunately we left the White House right on time, even though the rain was hammering down. Also riding with me in the presidential car were several of the president's closest aides, special counselor Harry McPherson, domestic adviser Joe Califano, and speechwriter Will Sparks. The president talked a little about his meeting that morning in the White House with the nation's governors. When Califano asked Johnson whether he had accepted questions from the governors, he said no and recalled how the late House Speaker Sam Rayburn had taught him to deal with people. Rayburn told him there are two basic ways to treat people: butter them up and hug and squeeze them or, to get even better results, give them a "kiss my ass" approach. I had seen enough of the governors' meeting to know the state leaders had received Rayburn's second treatment.
Within minutes we were pulling into the Pentagon's first-floor garage, and McNamara was there to meet us. We learned that the flyover had been scrubbed because of the worsening skies. But the outdoor farewell ceremony was still planned for the raised lawn overlooking the Potomac River. I boarded McNamara's private elevator with the president, the defense secretary, and ten others, including White House aides and a military elevator operator, Army Master Sgt. Clifford Potter. The elevator would be a speedy shortcut to Secretary McNamara's office on the fourth floor. Or so we thought. Up we went, but before we realized what was happening, the elevator just stopped. There was no sound of gears grinding or cables snapping, no jolt or bounce. McNamara immediately reached in front of the sergeant to push some buttons. "Let me see if I can't get this to work," he said. Nothing happened. "Turn the switch to automatic, and let's see if the elevator won't operate as it normally does," he said to the sergeant. Again, nothing.
"Isn't there an emergency switch?" someone asked.
"You'd better use the phone," McNamara said.
The sergeant picked up the wall phone and was able to reach a maintenance man. "We're stuck between the second and third floor," he said. We had no idea how he knew exactly where we were, because the floor indicator lights showed nothing.
"Do you have a full load there?" the maintenance man asked.
"We sure do," said the sergeant.
I could tell the president was ticked off just by looking at his stony face. "What's wrong with this thing?" he barked.
"Don't ask me," McNamara said. "I don't work here anymore."
I didn't blame the president for being impatient. We hardly had time to spare. He was due at the State Department after the Pentagon ceremony, and I needed to take care of a jillion things for our multi-leg Air Force One trip the next morning. The president maintained his cool pretty well, although he needled McNamara for not being able to keep the elevators running in his own building. He said he was going to leave out of his speech the line praising McNamara for bringing efficiency to the Defense establishment. Then he teased him by noting that the Defense Department thought so highly of him that the staff was trying to keep him until the last possible moment. Will Sparks busied himself with reading the small print on the elevator card and found out we were riding Elevator Number Thirteen. "That's probably the cause of our trouble," he told McNamara.
But McNamara said, "No, that's the trouble with having 29 days in February." The president asked what the elevator capacity was supposed to be. The sign said fifteen. He counted heads and found there were thirteen. Someone mumbled something about people being overweight.
It was getting stuffy by this time. Someone pried the inside doors open a crack so that air could come in from the elevator shaft, and Harry McPherson unscrewed the ceiling plate and pushed it up about half an inch. Later we found out that pushing that trapdoor ceiling automatically cut off electricity to the elevator and delayed us even longer. It still felt like we were breathing stale air, so the president told Will to try to get some more fresh air by wedging the notebook containing his speech in between the outer doors. We could see only the bottom half of the outer doors, so it was obvious we were stuck between floors. From inside, we could hear someone—it turned out to be an Air Force colonel—running up and down a stairway shouting, "They're stuck! They're stuck!" But no one was visible on the landing outside the doors, and someone began grumbling about the lack of help.
Secret Service Agent Clint Hill got on his walkie-talkie and ordered other agents to go to every floor until they found us. "Open the damn doors," he snapped. Within a few minutes, we saw several people show up on the floor. Finally, a maintenance man in a green General Services Administration uniform got the outer doors open.
By that time, we had been trapped for almost fifteen minutes. We were about three feet below the floor line of the fourth floor. I was probably the youngest and most agile one aboard, so I scrambled out first. Several others followed. Someone found a leather chair with wooden handles, and we lowered it into the elevator so the president could step on it and climb out. I grabbed his hands, and several of us pulled him out first, followed by McNamara and the others. Things like that are not supposed to happen to the president of the United States, but you never knew what might jump up and bite you on a day in the White House.
We walked down the stairs to the River Entrance, where General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Paul Nitze, Deputy Secretary of Defense, greeted the president. Outside it was bitterly cold and still raining hard. I accompanied the president to the outdoor reviewing stand for the official troop review and nineteen-gun salute. As if being stuck in an elevator for twelve minutes with hardly any room to turn had not been enough of an insult to the president, the public address system failed miserably. The president spoke for only a few minutes, but the sound of the driving rain and lack of a microphone prevented almost everyone from hearing a word he said.
The president called McNamara "the textbook example of the modern public servant." I couldn't help but think that McNamara was deserting the president at one of the lowest moments in the Vietnam War, even though his departure had been in the works for months. With America still reeling from the Tet Offensive, and Marines still under siege at Khe Sanh, the president needed his supporters more than ever. But McNamara, the architect of the war for both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the slick-talking academic who was so good with the charts and graphs, and the man who had been so optimistic for so long—he was crawling away and leaving the whole mess on the president. So much for loyalty and sense of honor. I thought he was an arrogant egghead, and I was glad to see him go.
Everyone was soaked—me, the president, McNamara, and the entire crowd gathered for the ceremony. I held an umbrella over the president, who at the last minute had donned a topcoat and hat. McNamara was bareheaded and wore only a blue suit and no overcoat. For twenty minutes, the three of us huddled under the umbrella to try to keep dry, but it didn't work. The umbrella malfunctioned, and water dripped on the president's head. He was prone to catching colds and the flu, and all I could think about was how cold I was without my long johns and how this weather would surely make the president sick. I found out later that Johnson told the other White House aides that he was wet because of the umbrella holder—me. "There was some kid holding an umbrella over my head which had a hole in it, and the water was running down the shoulder of my coat," Johnson related. "He was holding it so that all the water, which was running off the top of the umbrella, fell on McNamara's glasses, who was standing at attention going blind. I told the kid to move the umbrella to the right, and he moved it to the left, so that the only person who was protected then was him." Not a flattering portrait of my best attempt to keep the president dry, but he just liked to exaggerate. He was a lot drier than anyone else, especially me.
Having missed lunch, I was back in my White House office trying to sketch out possible flight plans to various destinations.
I got a visit from Sam Houston Johnson, the president's younger brother who lived, off and on, in the family quarters of the White House. Sam liked to chase women and drink during the day as a warm-up for his nocturnal liquid intake. He showed up in my office in his usual state—tipsy. "Well, maybe we ought to have a little nip," he teased. He knew I wouldn't drink while I was working, but he couldn't help needling me.
Sam was to Lyndon Johnson what Billy Carter was to President Jimmy Carter—a loose cannon who drank too much and often wasn't taken seriously. He was an embarrassment to the president, who had asked me to try to keep watch over Sam. I considered Sam a good friend, albeit an unconventional one. He was a free spirit and always full of colorful stories about his carousing. But I tried to avoid Sam most of the time because I didn't want the president to think I was too cozy with him.
Sam wandered into my office on this day because he'd heard some rumblings about the possible presidential trip. "Well, are we going to Texas tomorrow?" he asked. I had to be very careful. Obviously the president wasn't telling Sam about the trip, so I couldn't either. I just gave him some vague responses until he left.
A man from Chrysler called looking for me. I was in charge of the White House auto fleet, which consisted of Fords, Mercurys, and a few Cadillacs. The auto companies rented the cars to us for only one dollar a year, and each year we got new ones. The president had been pushing me to obtain a Chrysler station wagon for Lynda, but I had no time to meet with the Chrysler man on this day, so it would have to wait.
Pat Nugent called to check on the letter I had drafted for him. He needed to mail the letter with his signature to Brigadier General Willard Milliken, commander of the 113th Air National Guard unit in Washington, his former unit. The letter from Nugent requested extended active duty with assignment in Southeast Asia.
The president placed the first of what would be four calls to me in the next fifty minutes. He had a copy of Pat's proposed letter to General Milliken and wanted to read it to me even though I was the one who had written it. The president was double-checking every line of the letter. He thought the letter referred to the wrong Guard unit, and he noted that Milliken was not the officer who had offered Pat a promotion. We went over the letter, word for word, in phone calls that he placed at 5:52 p.m., 6:17 p.m., and 6:36 p.m.
The president did not want the public to know that Pat's way to Vietnam had been arranged by me and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
Then I went back to making all the phone calls to prepare for our Air Force One trip, on March 1, including getting the plane moved from Andrews Air Force Base to Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia instead of Washington's National Airport because of all the snow and ice.
Heavy snow fell as I left the White House to drive home to suburban Maryland. I had to take it slow and steady just to keep from sliding off the road. I could hardly see the pavement. Just my luck to have to maneuver through a snowstorm at the end of a long day of charging through the unpredictable obstacle course that was the Johnson White House. A short night's sleep in my own bed would be my reward. I couldn't wait to collect.
“What a delightful, honest, and entertaining story Jim Cross tells. Here is a man who was so close to power he would come down with a cold if the President sneezed (and could have brought a lot of us literally down with him), but he never forgot his roots in rural Alabama. A man whose daddy worked for the Horseshoe Lumber Company grows up to serve the most powerful man in the world, and his account of that amazing journey—some of it scarily bumpy, as I can testify—is a bird’s-eye view, from the cockpit of Air Force One, of why character counts.”
“General Cross is an American hero and the hero of generations of Johnsons. Daddy used to say there are two types of people; the talkers and the doers. General Cross was always a “can do” presence in our lives. No job was too great or too small for God, country, and his friends. Jim Cross has led a dynamic life in service for others, and I have no doubt generations yet to come will be enriched by his worthy story, as our family always has been.”
Luci Baines Johnson