“Skipper, remember me with the Jolly Rogers.”
Nearly 60 years after Ensign Jack Ernie was, according to Navy legend, shot down and killed during the 1945 battle of Okinawa, the aviator’s memory lives on in the F-14 Tomcat squadron that bears the unit’s original name and skull-and-crossbones insignia.
Fighter Squadron 103’s Jolly Rogers honor his last request by carrying Ernie’s skull and two crossed femurs in a glass case wherever they go, most recently on a Middle East deployment aboard the USS John F. Kennedy.
“He’s a full-time squadron member,” said Jolly Rogers aviator Lt. David Reade. “He’s on our flight schedule and our roster. He contributes a great deal to our successes and morale.”
Ernie’s family, squadron legend says, presented the skull and two femurs when his remains were recovered after the war. Squadron officers say they don’t know, however, what year that was.
The Jolly Rogers name has been carried by four fighter squadrons over the past 61 years, only coming to VF-103 in 1995.
Ernie, who was a Fighter Squadron 17 naval aviator during World War II, has deployed aboard dozens of carriers and to numerous air stations in his present service.
Tens of thousands of sailors know his story.
“Everybody knows about the bones of Jack Ernie,” Reade said.
“He’s been on board several carriers with us,” said the Jolly Rogers’ skipper, Cmdr. David Landess. “We did carrier qualifications on USS Ronald Reagan last year, and he’s gone on all the detachments we’ve had to Naval Air Station Key West (Fla.) and Naval Air Station Fallon (Nev.).”
Ernie is looked after by the squadron’s bones control officer.
“It’s kind of nice, but does bring a little pressure,” said the BCO, Lt. j.g. Matt Woo.
The BCO is always the newest pilot in rank and time in the squadron.
“It’s a right of passage for the junior pilot,” said Woo, who reported to the squadron in early June. “That’s the tradition, and Jack wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The advice given to Woo by the outgoing BCO?
“Basically, don’t lose the bones,” he said. “Also, don’t go into any dark parking lots by yourself.
“It’s an honor to carry his bones, but also a burden because of the theft attempts,” he explained. “You’re either the goat or a hero.”
Because the skull and crossbones draw so much attention, there have been many kidnapping attempts throughout Ernie’s long career.
“He’s highly sought after … by other squadrons,” said Landess. “There’s one or two strong attempts each year.
“I was successful in kidnapping him,” Landess said, explaining it was during a previous tour with a different squadron. “I’ve destroyed all the pictures since I’ve become the CO of this squadron.”
The Jolly Rogers name and skull-and-crossbones insignia were created by their first commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. John Thomas Blackburn, in 1943. Blackburn is said to have made the decision partially based on the aircraft that they flew, the F4U Corsair, and partially on the off-duty reputation of early carrier pilots.
While most of Ernie’s time is spent in the squadron’s ready room, it’s not all work for him. He’s a regular guest at squadron functions, or out on overseas liberty — the Navy word for time spent ashore.
But don’t expect trouble from Ernie. Gone is the “work hard, play hard” mentality of those earlier carrier pilots.
“We’re a good group now,” said Reade, “not like the boys of long ago.”
That doesn’t mean Ernie won’t have a drink when he’s out in town.
“He has a shot on top of his box, in case he has the urge to drink,” Landess said.
“Jack Daniels,” Woo later clarified.
Ernie obviously draws a lot of attention when he’s off the ship.
“They want to know who would carry a human head in a box,” Woo said.
“You get a lot of stares,” said Reade. “It’s a good way to share … naval aviation with the rest of the world.”
People also see the lengths that the aviators will go to honor Navy tradition.
“It’s not morbid; it’s more of a morale thing,” Landess said. “He’s an icon. It’s a rallying point, a part of our long history that we’re proud of.”
Even with more than a half-century of sea duty, Ernie has never been promoted. “He enjoys his status as a junior officer,” Landess said. “If he had continued to promote, he’d have had to retire years ago. He wants to stay a JO.”
The Jolly Rogers’ current deployment will be their last in the F-14. VF-103 will be switching to the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet starting next year, but the Jolly Rogers name will follow them, as will Ernie.
“Ensign Ernie will be there,” said Landess, who recently made his 1,000th carrier landing. “He’s the most experienced aviator in the squadron.”
Historical details about Ernie’s World War II exploits are as sketchy as his recovery and return to the Jolly Rogers.
Cmdr. Jeremy Gillespie, director of the Naval Historical Center’s Warfare Division, said that his researchers can’t find any official information about Ernie — neither disproving nor proving — the squadron’s story.
Gillespie himself, however, remembers a different tale of the bones. While serving aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1990s, he remembers seeing the bones in the VF-84 Jolly Rogers’ ready room.
“The story that was told in the wardroom at the time was that the individual who donated the bones had been a squadron member,” Gillespie said from Washington, D.C., recently. “The guy knew he was dying [of cancer], so he willed two femur bones and his skull to have on display. They sure looked like real bones to me.”
“Whether there’s enough proof to believe it’s the individual [Ernie] or a cool drinking story, I don’t know,” he said.