Air Force veteran of 3 wars, witness to atomic bomb dies

By REBECCA BURYLO | The Montgomery Advertiser (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 10, 2017

Ninety-one year old veteran of three wars and one of the last witnesses of the atomic bomb's destruction on Japan died in his Montgomery home over the holidays.

Air Force retired Lt. Col. John Hawkins Napier III, 91, died on December 27, 2016 leaving his wife, Cameron Napier of 52 years. He was laid to rest at the Old Oakwood Cemetery following a memorial service held at St. John's Episcopal Church on Sunday.

His experiences of fighting in World War II, the Vietnam War and the Korean War were previously featured in the Montgomery Advertiser's, Hall of Heroes column, in 2014, again in 2015 to recall the atomic bombing of Japan for the 70th anniversary and most recently in December to revisit his story for the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

As soon he heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1942, Napier, who was 17 at the time and was attending Pomona College in the San Francisco Bay area enlisted as a Marine.

During an interview with the Advertiser in 2014, Napier expressed his pride in volunteering to serve.

"It was for patriotism of course," Napier said. "After the attack on Pearl Harbor we all wanted to defeat the Japanese."
Napier served with the Marine Corps for three years going to Guam, Saipan and Japan.

Toward the end of WWII, his unit was set to invade Japan before the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and spared many allied lives. So instead of invading, Napier was one of the first to witness the aftermath.

"It was a horribly impressive sight," Napier told the Advertiser. "The destruction and people still going by on stretchers right in front of us.

“You couldn’t see their radiation burns because they were covered in sheets. The bombs took out the aircraft plants and the harbor and there was wreckage everywhere.”

The bombs ushered in the final stage of World War II, killing at least 129,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians.

Napier was training on the island of Saipan in the Pacific with the 2nd Marine Division just before Hiroshima was bombed. The Marines were originally scheduled to invade the Japanese island of Kyushu on Nov. 1 with an amphibious assault called Operation Olympic, but the bombs ended the war before the attack could be made.

Napier had been trained to be a runner, one of the riskiest jobs in the military at that time. He delivered messages to and from units when the radios didn't work or the field telephone was damaged.

Napier continued to serve in the Army and the Air Force. In the Korean War, Napier served in special operations for the Air Force component of NSA [National Security Agency] where he worked to intercept Soviet communications while stationed in Germany and Pakistan.

When the Vietnam War began, Napier was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base and helped organize the Air Force counterinsurgency course, which was later moved to Hurlbert Air Force Base and became Special Operations.

He was the unconventional warfare plans officer from 1964-65. He served in the Pentagon as special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force and returned to Montgomery in 1971 to serve on the faculty of the Air War College as their unconventional warfare expert. From 1974 until 1977 he was Air University Command Historian when he retired.

When the Gulf War began, he joined the State Defense Force, an auxiliary to the Alabama National Guard and served there for eight years, received the state rank of brigadier general for the Army and became deputy commander and again retired in 1999.

His decorations include the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Joint Service, Air Force and Army Commendation Medals, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, British Order of St. John, Alabama Distinguished Service Medal and he wore the Parachutist Badge.

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