Duty, Honor, Country: those three “hallowed words” are an apt description of the lifetime of service of Lieutenant General James D. Hughes. From his West Point graduation in June 1946 until his military retirement in 1981, and throughout a subsequent civilian career, General Hughes demonstrated these ideals daily. In fact, they guided him through his exceptional record of achievements.
General “Don” Hughes’ thirty-five-year career in the Air Force took him around the globe and included three combat tours in Korea and Vietnam. His illustrious record of military service began upon graduation from the United States Military Academy on June 4, 1946 when he was assigned to the Army Air Corps – which would become the US Air Force one year later – and it culminated in his final assignment as the Commander in Chief, Pacific Air Forces. Along the way, General Hughes accumulated 6300 flying hours, commanded from squadron to major air command level, and served as the Military Aide to the Vice President and later to the President of the United States of America.
General Hughes’ remarkable military journey began with duty as a pilot with the 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing at Itazuke Air Base in Kyushu, Japan. He deployed with this unit to Korea and was among the first to fly the F-80 in the Korean War, distinguishing himself as a skilled and courageous fighter pilot. By March 1951, he had completed 101 combat missions and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, nine Air Medals, and the Purple Heart.
In 1957, he was selected to be the Military Aide to Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Charged with advising and maintaining the Vice President’s schedule, he accompanied Mr. Nixon on the notable trip to Caracas, Venezuela in 1958 when the Vice President’s motorcade was violently attacked by a hostile mob that threatened the personal safety of the Vice President and Mrs. Nixon. When Mr. Nixon became President of the United States, he called upon Hughes once again, this time to serve as Military Assistant to the President. As such, he was responsible for all military support to the President and the White House, to include logistics, transportation, communications, ceremonies, and implementation of the White House emergency plan that provided for the security of the President, his family, key staff, and continuity of government in the event of a national crisis. The responsibilities and demands of this position were extensive and complex, involving both the coordination and the oversight of security anywhere the President and his senior staff traveled. He was the senior military member of the advance party to Beijing in October 1971 to prepare for President Nixon’s historic meetings with Chinese government officials. Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State during this period, stated he was impressed with Hughes’ “ability, precision and leadership” and believed he was “destined for high command.”
General Hughes volunteered for duty in Vietnam in 1962. Assigned to the 2nd Air Division Headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, he served as an instructor pilot to Vietnamese Air Force pilots and trained them to perform night close air support in response to attacks on their villages by the Viet Cong. He was awarded the Bronze Star and Air Medal for his service. General Hughes went on to command the 9th Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base, SC and the 12th Air Force at Bergstrom Air Force Base, TX, the largest tactical Air Force. As commander of the 12th Air Force, General Hughes integrated the new F-16 aircraft into the inventory while also remaining responsible for all tactical fighter and reconnaissance forces west of the Mississippi River, including Air National Guard and Reserve units. Upon relinquishing command of the 12th Air Force, General Hughes was presented the “Order of the Sword” by all of the noncommissioned officers in his unit. This award marked the deep respect and admiration the enlisted corps had for General Hughes as he departed the command.
The pinnacle of his military career was his assignment as Commander in Chief of the Pacific Air Forces. Charged with planning, controlling, coordinating, and conducting all offensive and defensive air operations in the Pacific, General Hughes had the enormous responsibility for over 34,000 Air Force personnel stationed in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Hawaii. The demands of all these commands were monumental, yet General Hughes performed with distinction each time. He retired on July 1, 1981, with thirty-five years of Air Force service.
General Hughes continued his service to the nation following his retirement from the Air Force. Maintaining close ties to the Air Force, he became Vice President of the Lockheed Air Terminal Company, and later a general consultant with Lockheed. In 2006, his twelve years of work to establish the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor were realized as the Hall was dedicated and opened in New Windsor, NY, the very location where General George Washington established the Badge of Merit (the precursor to the Purple Heart) during the encampment of the Army from the Battle of Yorktown to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor commemorates the extraordinary sacrifices of America's servicemen and servicewomen who were killed or wounded in combat.
General Hughes has led a life of exemplary leadership, dedication, and service to our nation. He is a credit to the West Point tradition of Duty, Honor, Country.
West Point Association of Graduates presented the 2009 Distinguished Graduate Award to James D. Hughes in 2009.