It's not right to lie about one's military service but in the USA it's legal. Consequently the Stolen Valor Act, originally drafted to deny unearned attention to phony heroes, had to be redrafted. The revised bill was passed last year, emphasizing that lying about one's record is permissible as long as the liar gains no financial benefit.
The list of phony war heroes is long and keeps growing. The most prominent was President Lyndon Johnson, who received an unearned Silver Star in 1942. As a furloughed congressman, Lt. Cdr. Johnson, USNR, rode a B-26 that aborted over New Guinea. Nonetheless, Gen. Douglas MacArthur gave Johnson (a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt) the nation’s third-highest combat decoration with a bogus account of heroism.
Probably nobody knows how many fake fighter aces have peddled their stories to inept reporters and naïve hero worshipers but here’s a sampling.
In 1994 a continuing education instructor at Mayport, Florida, convinced the command that he was a triple ace and a retired rear admiral. The navy bought the lies and paid tribute to the “hero” in the base newspaper. “Fightin’ Dick Russell” said he flew in the Solomons where he had been “The Satan of the Slot,” a moniker from the dreadful 1970s TV series, Black Sheep Squadron.
About that time a Florida model shop announced that it was (again) honoring “Colonel John C. Meyer,” WW II ace and Korean War MiG killer. I contacted the babes in the woods, informing them that four-star general John C. Meyer had died in 1975. At first the modelers refused to believe me. When they heard from others, including veterans of the 352nd Fighter Group, the hero worshipers dropped off the scope.
One of the longest-lived phonies was a California liar called Andy Cowan. He thought he could skate under the ace radar by claiming 4 ½ victories, but like so many fakes he did not realize that it’s called The Information Age for a reason. He did however convince elements of the U.S. Navy that he was a WW II fighter pilot who “fought in all the big battles.” Furthermore, without naming them he claimed being on three carriers that were sunk—an impossibility. And nobody of that name shot down any airplanes in WW II. Yet he was a frequent speaker at local schools, even showing “himself” in wartime photos—lifted from history books. When he finally died in 2008 the Salinas paper’s obituary repeated most of Cowan’s lies. But when confronted with the facts, the editors refused to print a retraction.
In 2011 I worked with Pacific Theater historian Bruce Gamble (a former naval flight officer) to expose a fake Black Sheep Squadron ace in New Mexico. Marine Corps archives confirmed that no Terry Fredericks had served in the Corps during WW II, let alone as an aviator and ace. To its credit, the El Paso Times investigated further and published a correction and retraction. The original article was only published because a retired admiral naively believed Fredericks’ lies.
More recently, two Indiana papers wrote lengthy articles about 88-year-old Glen Fleming of the South Bend area. Fleming said that he flew SBDs at Coral Sea, F4Fs at Midway (as a dive bomber!), became an ace in Hellcats, and finished the war flying Avenger “rocket bombers.” Both the South Bend Tribune and the La Porte Herald Argus published fawning articles about the fake, who claims he left the navy with combat wounds in 1946. But every Navy combat fighter pilot is known from 1942—none named Fleming. The Herald Argus ignored my emails. It took the POW Network with Fleming’s actual navy records to elicit a response—he was a second class petty officer who spent nearly all the war ashore, leaving in 1945.
In the 1980s Arizona’s largest newspaper publisher was Darrow “Duke” Tully who claimed for years he was an Air Force reservist. He hobnobbed with Barry Goldwater and boosted John McCain’s congressional candidacy, often appearing in dress uniform with miniature medals. He gave himself periodic promotions, peaking at colonel. But finally his lies caught up with him and he resigned in disgrace, moving out of state. Once in awhile you’ll still hear Arizona airmen say, “I was Duke Tully’s wingman!”
So: what to do when you encounter a reputed war hero?
Job one is to become a skeptic if not an outright cynic. Rather than accept the claimant’s tales of aerial heroism, ask for records, starting with Department of Defense Form 214 (DD-214) that shows details of military service. If the individual cannot provide it or the equivalent, he’s immediately suspicious. The liar’s default position is “I lost it.” But copies are available for real vets.
Demand to see other documents: logbooks, medal citations, wartime correspondence. Photos may or may not be helpful because phonies lie about who’s who in pictures.
Ask specifics: what squadron(s) were you in, and who were the COs? (If he asks “What’s a CO?” you’ve found another liar.) What aircraft did he fly? One fake was asked what model of P-51 he flew and replied, “Oh the mind that they had in England.”
Better yet, ask, “With all your flying experience, tell me how a wing generates lift.” (You can easily obtain the answer by a minute’s Googling.) For some obscure reason there are more Navy phonies than Air Force phonies. If he claims to be a Golden Winger, ask him to describe the carrier landing pattern.
Also ask to talk to the hero’s wartime friends. If he says they’re dead or he’s lost track of all of them, that’s another clue.
No reputable journalist will publish an article with “facts” based solely on the subject’s assertions. But there are many lazy reporters and indifferent editors in the media, so we’ll continue seeing “reporting” of unethical wannabe heroes like Lyndon Johnson and his ilk.