Some people have long military careers without ever being in the line of fire. John Lavra cannot make such a claim.
Lavra enlisted in the Navy June 6, 1944 as a combat aircrewman. He was called to active duty two days later and went on to become one of only 171,000 U.S. servicemembers to see service in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
As an enlisted man in World War II, Lavra searched for submarines in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. He was commissioned in 1947 as a Naval Aviator.
Over the course of his career, Lavra flew more than 5,300 flight hours in more than 22 types of aircraft from propeller-engine fighters and cargo planes to jets. If you ask, the 95-year old will waste no time in telling you which was his favorite: “the Spad.”
The ‘Spad’ was the unofficial nickname of the AD-4 Skyraider, a single engine, 18-cylinder attack plane that will forever be linked to Lavra.
In 1951 the young officer was hit by enemy ground fire more than 100 miles deep in North Korea. He managed to turn his Spad and limp south to friendly territory before a hard landing destroyed the aircraft.
A year later, Lavra launched from the deck of the USS Essex on a combat mission. It was Oct. 20, 1952 and this time, he wouldn’t make it the 32 miles south to friendly territory.
Today, Lavra’s voice speeds up a bit as he provides the highlights of his longest day.
“I got hit at something like 10,000 feet and couldn’t get out of the damned airplane. People were screaming, ‘get out, Lav, get out’ and I’m, ‘what the hell do you think I’m trying to do here’?”
“They came in and pulled me out; and I might say I was burned to a crisp, from right below my helmet all the way down to my waist. My gloves were burned to my hands – I couldn’t take them off. I couldn’t get my helmet off – I had to cut it off with my survival knife.”
Survival Report #2, 18 Nov 1952
(The following is commentary from Lavra to a US Navy interrogator after he was rescued)
Came in at fairly high altitude, about 12,000 feet, glide bombing. My section leader went over in his dive and I went with him almost in the wing position, slightly behind and quite a ways wide of him. We got down, released our bombs about 5,000 feet above the level of the ground and started a pullup. Just after we pulled up, I felt a terrific wrenching movement and sound.
The next thing I know there was flame all over. I grabbed the stick with both hands and tried to keep the airplane flying; I tried to … gain as much altitude as possible. I’d say I gained maybe 1,500 feet, then I went into a very sharp left spin. There was a terrific fire in the cockpit. The other pilots were all hollering to bail out. As soon as she whipped into a left spin, I realized I wouldn’t be able to do anything with it, so I started to prepare to bail out. I loosened my seat strap. I remember looking for the canopy release handle. It was all enveloped in flames. I clenched my fist, reached through the flames and felt around until I found it. … I pulled it back - the canopy came open with no strain. The fire increased quite a bit then and the heat was something terrific. I tried not to breathe any flames if I could help it.
On my first attempt out, I felt as if I was hung up or that the plane had slapped me back in the cockpit because I fell back in a sitting position. I started to look down to see if anything was holding me and about that time, I lost my oxygen mask. The straps had burned off, I think. I saw a big ball of flame. … It came right at my face, so I sort of turned and shut my eyes – when I opened my eyes again, I noticed my goggles were gone and so was most everything else. ... I tried to get out again. This time I didn’t have much trouble. I reached over with my left hand, grabbed the step on the starboard side of the airplane and pulled myself up on that side which was then on top. I stepped out and dove off.
I wanted to make a delayed jump, but I was afraid to delay too long because I didn’t know how much altitude I’d lost. I reached for the D ring and couldn’t find it. Then I remembered you have to look for it, so I definitely looked down there for it. I couldn’t see it or any part of my harness. ... I really got panicky then.
I took my left hand and started around behind me, reaching for the D ring. I finally found it almost in the small of my back. I don’t know how it got back there but I tried to pull it out with my left hand. It wouldn’t come out so I took both hands and shifted the harness around to where I could get at it. … I grabbed the D ring and pulled it, (I’d bailed out once before at El Centro and received a heavy jolt. I was waiting for it this time, but it never came). The chute opened very easily, and right then I hit the ground. I had just started to reach for the risers when I hit.
Behind the lines
Lavra saw that his squadron-mates had stayed in the area and he knew they saw the chute, so he began to move. Of the nearly 100 items he carried with him, most of them were gone, but he still had two smoke signals. He continued to move away from the sounds of gunfire, crawling on his badly burned hands and knees and then on his stomach until he reached the top of a hill. Meanwhile the Navy planes were strafing the area, looking for ground troops that were looking for Lavra.
While waiting for the helicopter Lavra was afraid he’d pass out, so he broke an ammonia ampule, one of two he was carrying, and saturated his glove with it. “I took a whiff of that every once in a while. It made the pain worse, but it woke me up,” he told the interrogator.
When he saw the helicopter, Lavra sent off the first smoke signal. As the helicopter got into place, Lavra got the sling over his head and gave the thumbs up. “I felt an immediate jolt as they lifted me up…I felt rather helpless, but I was glad to be in that sling. It seemed like forever and a day to get dragged up to the helo.”
The entire report can be read at: https://www.roanoke8thairforce.com/captain-john-lavra
After his two combat tours in Korea, Lavra underwent nearly two dozen plastic surgery procedures at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda. He went on to fly logistics missions to Da Nang and Chou Li, Vietnam in the mid-1960s, and he made trips to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica at the request of the White House on President (John F.) Kennedy’s People to People Program. In all, Lavra served more than 13 years of sea duty and his decorations include the Purple Heart, Air Medal with two gold stars, and Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V. As a career Reservist, Lavra served all but about seven months of his more than 26 years on active duty.
After his military career, Lavra went on to enjoy his retirement. “Have you ever seen an unhappy bum?” he asked. “Work is a capitalistic scheme and I want no part of it. I retired.”
Today Lavra has six children, 18 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren. His daughter Valerie Lavra was a nurse at the Salem VA Medical Center for 17 years.