As those of us here in the States celebrate our nation's freedom this weekend by blowing the hell out of stuff with fireworks, incinerating giant slabs of beef on our charcoal grills, and laughing at the disgusting old guys who for some insane reason thought it would be smart/funny/awesome to wear Speedos to the beach, it's important that we also take a moment or two to think about the true badasses who dedicated their lives to serving their country. Kenneth L. Reusser was the most decorated Marine Corps aviator in our nation's history, serving in 253 combat missions across three wars, and earning 59 medals – including 2 Navy Crosses, 4 Purple Hearts, and 2 Legions of Merit. Basically, it's pretty safe to say that if you melted this guy's medals down you could weld them into a giant patriotic android capable of picking up Kim Jong-Il and using him as a javelin with which to impale Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He also survived being shot down five times, which is pretty damn impressive considering that being shot out of the sky in a fighter plane probably carries a pretty low probability of not detonating into a giant meat explosion, and is the only aviator to survive being shot down in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. So, yeah. This guy was pretty tough I guess.
Ken Reusser basically enjoyed doing things that were awesome, and it was bonus points if it was ass-destroyingly dangerous as well. One time he bought a parachute, and decided to test it out by strapping it on and jumping off the roof of a barn. I think we can all agree that this is totally sweet and also xtreme to the max gonzo. He also paid for college and flight school by competitively racing motorcycles, which is probably one of the most badass ways you can pay for your schooling this side of alligator wrestling or professional knife-fighting, so you can be pretty damn sure that when the craziness at Pearl Harbor went down and it was time to kick it into overdrive and take it right into the danger zone, Ken was one of the first ones to hop on a one-way flight to Destructionville. He joined the Corps, hopped into the cockpit of an F4U Corsair, and got busy turning Japanese aviators into giant, gasoline-filled, environmentally-unfriendly coral reefs in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
(As a side note, I spent a good fifteen minutes here staring blankly at the screen trying to think of a brain-searingly hilarious way to use text-message lingo to tie "F4U" into something to the effect of "saying FU to Japanese pilots", but so far I'm coming up completely blank. Please feel free to take this opportunity to laugh hysterically at your computer screen while imagining that I just said something so insanely witty that it completely blew your mind.)
REUSSER: F4U LOL
Operating from the flight deck of American aircraft carriers across the Pacific like a turboprop version of Top Gun was pretty sweet and all, but things were less fun when Ken had his first brush with death in 1942. While screaming through the skies above Guadalcanal, Reusser's Corsair was shot down, and he was forced to crash-land on an unfriendly island surrounded by gunfire and hostile soldiers. He somehow managed to make it to an American-friendly village, where the locals nursed him back to health and sent him back to continue blasting faces. His crowning achievement in the Second World War would come a few years later, in the air over Okinawa, when he and his wingman Bob Klingman engaged in a badass dogfight against a Japanese photo reconnaissance plane that was documenting American ship positions and relaying them back to crazy Kamikaze squadrons. This jacknut was tearing ass through the stratosphere at 38,000 feet – roughly 1,000 feet above the service ceiling for the F4U Corsair – but Reusser and Klingman didn't give a shit about something as trivial as the near-constant threat of spinning out, stalling, and going into deadly death spins of death and destruction. They pulled up behind the Japanese plane, and opened fire with their machine guns. Well, unfortunately when they pulled the trigger, nothing happened. This kind of put a damper on their hopes of tearing this enemy plane a few hundred new assholes, but it's not like that was going to slow them down or anything. So flying high above the earth in the thin air and ball-shattering cold (I probably don't have to tell you that World War II Corsairs didn't come with creature comfort crap like pressurized cabins and hot flight attendants serving roasted peanuts and badass glasses of orange juice), they came up with a completely insane plan – they were going to ram this bastard and use their propellers to chop up the tail of the Japanese plane. Are you kidding me? They freaking RAMMED THE PLANE 38,000 FEET ABOVE THE GROUND, making mince meat of it's fuselage and sending it smashing down to earth in a giant puff of gray smoke like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. I imagine that then they did a bunch of barrel rolls and give each other mid-air high fives because this was so awesome. They also both won Navy Crosses for this brazen display of raw iron ballsackness.
The smashed propeller on Bob Klingman's Corsair
Any way you slice it, Ken Reusser was awesome. (Pause for groans). After WWII, Ken went on to fight in Korea, where he won yet another Navy Cross while fighting with the famous Black Sheep Squadron. This tough-ass Marine aviator led a flight group that destroyed a North Korean truck depot and tank repair station, took a bunch of hits from ground fire, and returned to his carrier just long enough to get his plane fixed up before heading back out after an oil depot. He blew up the oil facility with his rockets, and when he was done with that, he noticed a camouflaged NK oil tanker trying to sneak out of the harbor. Fuck that. Ken was completely out of rockets, but as we've already seen, this guy was in the business of making do with whatever armament he had available at the time. He dove down, streaked a few hundred feet above the water, and took out the tanker at close range with his goddamned machine guns. The tanker went up in a giant towering inferno, and Ken was so close to the ground that the explosion nearly blew his plane into another dimension, but he somehow managed to return home in one piece. He became the first Marine to win a medal for valor in combat in Korea.
But hell, after busting face in Korea, Reusser STILL wasn't done. When America was "in the shit" in 'Nam, Ken traded in his Corsair for a helicopter and took command of Marine Aircraft Unit 16. He flew out on night assaults, raids, and rescue missions, saved downed pilots, transported Marines to and from the battlefields, and (by most accounts) loved the smell of napalm in the mornings. That was working out pretty well for him for a while, until while on one particularly dangerous rescue mission, his Huey was hit by ground fire and went up in flames. Reusser was 100% immolated, and required skin grafts on 35% of his body, but still somehow survived and was evacuated back to American lines.
Well, while you might think that being completely set on fire would end most peoples' careers/lives/etc., it didn't even slow Ken Reusser down all that much. He left the Corps as a Colonel, and as a retired Marine (as my e-mailers so love to tell me, "there is no such thing as an ex-Marine") he worked to support veterans' groups, rode around in some sweet parades, and basically just continued being awesome. He died two weeks ago, on June 19, 2009, of natural causes.