Saturday, December 24, 2016

A welder, a fighter pilot, and a scholar

I met many memorable people while researching the history of the American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers of Burma and China. My favorite, though, was Don Lopez, assistant director of the National Air & Space Museum and my mentor during the year I spent in Washington, translating Japanese accounts of the air war in Southeast Asia, 1941-1942. Don was the son of a welder in Brooklyn, He became hooked on flying, joined the U.S. Army at the age of eighteen, and was sent to China soon after the AVG was disbanded. He flew 101 combat missions, survived a mid-air collision with a Nakajima Hayabusa fighter of the Japanese Army Air Force, and was credited with destroying five enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat. Postwar, he served as a USAF test pilot and later went to work as an aeronautical specialist for the Smithsonian Institution. He helped create the Air & Space Museum, and served as its assistant director until he died at the age of 84.

Don had a son who continues his name, and I was delighted to see in the Wall Street Journal today that Donald S. Lopez Jr. is the author of The Lotus Sutra: A Biography, just out from Princeton University Press. Only in America! The Lopez family has gone in three generations from blue-collar worker to fighter ace to scholar. And if my mentor was any example, they have all been men to enjoy, to appreciate, and to learn from.

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