November 21, 2013, James W. Empey died in his home at the age of 89.
Empey was a fighter ace and served in two wars: World War II and the Vietnam War. He began his military career in 1942. At the age of 18, he enrolled as an aviation cadet in the Army Air Forces. He was assigned to be a member of the 59th Fighter Group and trained as a P-39 pilot. Afterward, he was assigned to North Africa in 1943.
In 1944, Empey was piloting a P-51 over Europe and in a month’s time, he shot down five German aircraft. This feat made him an ace at the young age of 20.
“He was an accomplished fighter pilot before he could vote,” longtime friend Col. Ward Boyce said.
In 1945, Empey returned to the United States and became a training instructor. It was at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in New York that he met his wife and the couple wed in 1950. They celebrated their 63 years of marriage on Christmas Eve.
Empey was released to the reserves but was called back into active duty in 1953. He attended the Air Force’s experimental test pilot school. Empey was also assigned to the US airbase in Châteauroux, France. In 1962, he was sent to Oklahoma State University to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering.
Before Empey volunteered to go to Vietnam, the couple was living in California.
“The reason he volunteered to go to Vietnam and fly again was because he said too many 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds were coming back in body bags,” said his long time neighbor and friend Diana Herrera.
Empey garnered the nickname of “Red Baron” because he wore his World War II-era leather helmet, white scarf and goggles while he flew the Vietnam missions.
After the war, he worked at the USAF Systems Command launching communication satellites.
Empey retired from the Air Force in 1972 as a lieutenant colonel. During his years of service, he was awarded the Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying crosses, and a total of 27 Air Medals. He was also inducted into the Commemorative Air Force American Combat Airman Hall of Fame back in 2009.
He and his wife enjoyed traveling throughout the United States and lived in Arizona, Florida, and California.
In the late 90s, the couple moved to San Antonio, Texas and bought a house in Universal City. Empey continued to participate in the American Fighter Aces Association. He especially enjoyed the association’s annual convention.
“He was a very good-natured, fun-loving individual,” Boyce said to MySanAntonio. “One year we were honoring the Women Airforce Service Pilots and he came in a dress and a wig to put himself off as one of the WASPS.”