John R. Cash died today, 12 September 2003. Everyone knows him as Johnny Cash the great country and western singing legend. But what a lot of folks do not know, is Johnny Cash was a military veteran before he was a country singing star.
Before he was the "Man in Black", Airman Cash was the Man in Blue-Air Force Blue. He was born in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas and grew up on the family farm. He finished high school in 1950 just in time for the Korean War. While most young men, waited for the Army to draft them for two years of service, Johnny Cash joined the Air Force for four years.
He trained at Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas, where he met his first wife and then shipped out to Landsberg, Bavaria, Germany. He spent most of his Air Force enlistment in Germany. He was a Morse Code intercept operator with the USAF Security Service. This meant he was listening to radio signals generated by people on the other side of the "Iron Curtain." There is a positive comparison, of the similarities in the abilities of people who work with signal codes and music. Apparently Mr. Cash had a strong natural ability in both areas.
He came from a family with a musical background, but was extreamly poor and buying musical instruments was low on the priority of needs. He was able to purchase his first guitar at the Base Exchange while stationed in Germany, using his military pay. I remember hearing an interview of Mr. Cash, talking about the fact that his military pay, regardless of how little Airman's pay was back then, was the first real money he had. The guitar was most assuredly a luxury he could never afford back home, as the son of an Arkansas sharecropper.
He formed his first band while in the Air Force, called the Landsberg Barbarians. It was made up of his fellow Airmen. He entertained GIs as well as the local Germans. The difference was, unlike Private Elvis Presley; Airman Johnny Cash was not already a famous singer while "posted" in Europe.
In the Air Force, after teaching himself to play the guitar he started writing music. He served in the Air Force until 1954, when he returned to Texas to marry his wife and eventually moved to Memphis, Tenn. Now as a civilian, veteran Johnny Cash used his G.I. Bill benefits, to attend a radio-announcing course, at a broadcasting school in Memphis.
When you look at his singing career from the 1960s through the 1990s you don't think of Johnny Cash as a veteran. His "Man in Black" image, partly came out of his feelings for the Vietnam War. However I discovered that Mr. Cash toured Vietnam for the U.S. State Department and performed for the troops.
His hard living, alleged drug and alcohol abuse and run-ins with the law did not set well with some in the Veteran community. But this was his life after serving his country. I can remember being on leave with my career Navy father, headed home to Iowa when I was in grade school. It was a long drive from where we were stationed in Idaho and we listened to Johnny Cash on the radio singing "Five Feet high and rising." All that summer, much to the chagrin of my family, I ran around sing "how highs the water mama - how highs the water papa." I couldn't remember the rest of the words.
It was the front lawn of veteran Johnny Cash's home, that a young Captain named Kris Kristofferson landed on, in an Army helicopter. He presented himself as a songwriter to Mr. Cash. After Captain Kristofferson left the service, it was veteran Cash who helped launch the music career of veteran Kristofferson.
Veterans helping veterans in the entertainment industry is becoming a thing of the past. The main reason is there are so few veterans in the music, TV and motion picture business. Even with all the patriotic music coming out since 11 September 2001, most of it is written and sung about veterans-not by veterans. While it is wonderful music and great performances, I still have to stop and remind myself these performers have not "been there."
The entertainment industry and the country music world lost a great performer today. They however are not the only ones who felt a loss. The veteran's of this great country lost one of their own. Former Airman Johnny Cash is gone, but I can assure you this is one veteran who will not be forgotten. "We buried another veteran today-it seems all my life it happens this way."
Major Van Harl USAF Ret.