Faded memories: Former Air Force pilot pays tribute to his service as he turns 100 in Tokyo
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 17, 2019
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — It’s been decades since Dave Fisher soared through the wild blue yonder in Air Force jets, and a century since his birth on July 17, 1919.
The former World War II enlisted soldier who retired as an Air Force major in the 1960s is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, American military veterans in Japan.
On a June 25 visit to Yokota — home of U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force in western Tokyo — the former aviator marveled at modern military machines and struggled to remember his glory days in the cockpit.
“The only thing I fly now is this,” he said, patting his wheelchair as he sat in a parking lot near Yokota’s runway watching a 747 cargo plane take off.
Hazy memories bubbled to the surface as he squinted to see C-130J Super Hercules cargo planes and C-12 Huron passenger aircraft parked nearby.
“I was flying out of an Air Force base north of … north of … north of …” he repeated, straining to conjure a lost memory.
The former pilot smiled when he spoke of his Air Force days, but those memories are fading. Some of them, however, have been preserved in emails to his longtime friend, Doug Lerner, 63, a Tokyo-based computer programmer from New York, who last month accompanied Fisher from his nursing home in central Tokyo to Yokota.
In March 2009, for example, Fisher wrote to Lerner about the impact of his war experiences.
“I have had nightmares since WW-II,” he wrote. “Actually, my original nightmares were triggered by WW-II and a few Cold War activities.”
A dorm mate once told him of an episode where a sleeping Fisher “grabbed my golf bag in the corner and choked it to death,” he wrote in the email.
Other messages contain details about Fisher’s life in the military.
He wrote that he was at Biggs Air Force Base, near El Paso, Texas, in 1951, flying high-altitude test missions in B-45s.
The North American Aviation B-45 Tornado was one of America’s first operational bombers to employ jet propulsion, the first four-jet aircraft to drop an atom bomb and the first to be refueled in midair, according to the Boeing company’s website.
“The purpose of all this activity was to develop an effective ground to air missile defense system selective enough to attack incoming flights in sequence according to their respective times of arrival in the target area,” Fisher wrote in 2008.
The pilots involved in the project were shown a short film that compared the bounce of a baseball during a game to radar signals interacting with aircraft, he wrote.
While stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., between 1957 and 1960, Fisher studied at Florida State University, graduating with a social science degree, he wrote.
Fisher also wrote about his long-ago efforts to raise quail at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., as quarry for the local rod and gun club.
Pinning down details
Fisher appears to have served during World War II and the Korean War, with duty stations in Europe and the Far East, but the lack of official records makes it tough to pin down many details.
A record in the National Archives states that Fisher was born in Oklahoma and living in Kansas when he enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers in 1940.
Fisher’s friends helped him request a copy of his military records from the government, but it hasn’t arrived.
His Air Force retiree ID card, issued in December 1964, lists his rank as major and birthdate as July 17, 1919.
Old photographs, kept by his great-niece, Debra Pearce, show a young Fisher in dress uniform, posing with a T-6 Texan aircraft and looking like he’s about to embark on a mission, clad in a flight suit and goggles.
Another photo of Fisher in uniform includes a note on the back stating that it was taken at his living quarters in Daegu, Korea, in November 1946.
A June 1957 newspaper obituary for his father, Arthur Fisher, states that his son, Maj. David Fisher, was serving with the Air Force in France. An August 1963 obituary for his mother, Rachel Fisher, states that her son was stationed on Okinawa.
Lerner, who met Fisher in an online chat room in the late 1980s, said he didn’t know how old his friend was until he mentioned that his first car was a Ford Model T.
Fisher often mentions a Porsche he once owned back in the States.
“He has regretted leaving it behind every day for 50 years,” Lerner said.
After leaving the Air Force in the 1960s, Lerner said Fisher attended Thunderbird School of Management in Arizona, which became the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. He moved to Japan shortly after that and became a respected English language teacher.
Fisher never married and has no children, but eight relatives traveled to Tokyo for an early 100th birthday celebration on Monday that was also attended by dozens of Japanese and expatriate friends, Lerner said.
Before moving into a Tokyo nursing home in September, Fisher shared a home for four decades with his partner, retired hotel worked Nobuhiko Sato, 65. The couple visited the United States several times over the years, Lerner said.
Fisher has been asking to come to Yokota “every time I’ve come to see him for the past few years,” Lerner said. “He said he wanted to go to the BX. He loves the Air Force and has good memories of this place. He said he wanted to live out here rather than in his [home in Tokyo at the time].”
Fisher picked up a Yokota Air Base T-shirt as a souvenir during his recent visit.
“I used to like to fly,” he told Maj. Kevin Simonds, 34, a C-12 Huron pilot with the 459th Airlift Squadron, when the two met near a checkout counter at the exchange.
“It’s pretty fun,” Simonds replied with a smile before Fisher headed downstairs to eat strawberry ice cream in the food court.