Hall of Fame runner Archie Messenger saluted on Veterans Day

Archie Messenger

Archie Messenger, inducted into the USATF Masters Hall of Fame in 2001, was the subject of a Veterans Day profile in his Massachusetts hometown newspaper. He hasn’t been ranked for about six years, but he’s still a legend. The bulk of the story is about his military career. But we also learn: “He would continue to perform in various Masters Competitions regionally and all over the globe until just three years ago where, at the tender age of 84, he decided to hang his runner’s cleats up once and for all.” Still, he stays in shape.

Here’s the story for posterity:

U.S. Navy pilot and Boxford veteran flew many missions over Okinawa

By Ian Fitch/tritown@cnc.com
Tri-Town Transcript
Posted Nov 11, 2010 @ 10:37 PM

Like many men of his era, Boxford’s Archie Messenger is hesitant to talk too loudly about his wartime experiences. This is borne from a natural tendency towards modesty as well as an obvious desire to keep the more shocking aspects of his wartime service as detached from his day-to-day life as possible.

Messenger is a decorated U.S. Navy pilot who flew more missions than anyone else in his squadron over Okinawa, Japan during World War II.

A resident of Four Mile Village, Messenger was recently interviewed for this story by Boxford’s Ian Fitch,a former Marine Corps aviator, who himself served almost 10 years of active duty as both a rotary and fixed wing pilot.
Here is Messenger’s life story, as told by a fellow veteran.

Growing up during wartime

At 87 years old, Archie Messenger sits before me still as sharp and gimlet-eyed, albeit with a set of spectacles adorning them, as he was seven decades ago when he was a young freshman at Amherst College in the fall of 1941.

After he was born in Colorado Springs, Colo. in 1923 while his parents were on vacation, he moved at age 5 to Hinsdale, Ill. There he grew up in the typical way with three siblings, one older brother and two younger sisters. He excelled in high school both academically and as a X-country and track and field runner. After high school, he followed in his brother’s footsteps to Amherst College where he was awarded a full merit-based scholarship.
However, he was only several weeks into his freshman year before he heard the grim news of his father’s passing away from a stroke.

After spending a week back home, he made his way back to college all the more focused on his academic career while also working in the college cafeteria and at one of the local tobacco farms.

Adding to his frenetic schedule, he was captain of his freshman cross-country team. This overtime schedule finally laid him low in the school infirmary with the German measles by early December which is where he found himself, listening to the radio on Dec. 7, 1941.

Like all of those of his generation, he still remembers exactly where he was and how he heard the news of the bombing of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Hawaii by the Japanese Imperial Navy.

On to flight school

Amherst College, like the rest of the nation, went immediately to a wartime footing and began to schedule all of the student’s classes so they ran all year long including the summer. It was at this point that Archie began pondering how he would do his part for the war effort.

Prior to America’s direct involvement in the war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been sending aircraft and ships to the British to assist them against the Germans during the Battle of Britain. P-38 fighters and B-25 bombers were using the nearby Westover Army Air Base as a refueling stop before flying across the Atlantic. It was these aircraft constantly landing and taking off nearby that led Archie to aviation as his desired wartime occupation.

After researching the various ways he could enter the Navy flight program, he chose the V-5 program, since it required the least amount of time before going to flight school. He enlisted in the program in November 1942 and completed two full academic years at Amherst before beginning full time military training in February 1943.

Initially sent to Monmouth, IL for basic naval officer training, Archie was then ordered to pre-flight training in Iowa City, Iowa. Thereafter, he proceeded to Pensacola, FL for primary flight training where he flew a Piper Cub. And then it was on to Ottumwa, Iowa for further training where he trained in a Boeing biplane.

Finally, he found himself at Glenview Naval Air Station, just north of Chicago, for advanced training in a F4F Wildcat where he also completed his first carrier landing on a converted tanker sailing up and down Lake Michigan.
Flew 25 sorties in Okinawa battle

In the fall of 1944 Archie was designated a Naval Aviator and Ensign (the first rank one receives after being commissioned as an officer). He then received orders to California and then to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. By the end of 1944, he found himself in the Admiralty Islands, a remote and tiny archipelago just north of New Guinea.

Assigned to his first and only squadron during the war, VC-96, he and his fellow pilots were assigned to the USS Rudyard Bay, an escort carrier that sailed north at full speed to join the huge compliment of ships that were tasked to support the U.S. invasion of Okinawa, Japan in March, 1945.

As a “nugget” pilot, he was given very little time to adapt to wartime conditions before he began flying as his flight leader’s wingman. For the next three months, he flew more missions during the course of the battle than any other pilot in his squadron, up to 25

During his “typical” day, he would be take off at 4 a.m. to be over the target area at dawn and then loiter for up to four hours over the assigned objective to perform either combat air patrol (air-to-air combat) or ground support. The primary objective was to suppress the very tough Japanese resistance that our troops encountered as they advanced up the island.

Often he would fly not just once but twice a day to do what he could to assist the troops on the ground. Often his targets would consist of troop and supply trains, boats transiting along the coast or on inland rivers, and concealed troop positions. It was because of Archie’s dependability and devotion to duty that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross after the Battle of Okinawa finally ended in June.

Because the war ended just two months later, this three-month period of combat turned out to be his sole exposure to the war, but his experiences during that relatively short period were enough to last several lifetimes.

Vivid war memories

When asked about some of his most vivid impressions, he recalled that several times when making a bomb run on Japanese positions, he and his squadron mates would be fired upon by Japanese anti-aircraft batteries and only upon his return to the ship would he then find out one of his fellow pilots was missing, presumably from being shot down by enemy gunners.

In aggregate, his squadron lost 3 pilots from ground fire during the three-month campaign. Another memorable experience consisted of frequently flying into the prop wash of his fellow pilots’ aircraft while attempting to land on the carrier deck – this would often cause him to “wave off”, i.e. abort the landing and try again.

Perhaps the most disturbing of all of his memories was his witnessing, while he was being transferred in a landing craft from one aircraft carrier to another, a Japanese kamikaze aircraft diving into the cruiser USS Randolph. The ship was immediately engulfed in flames from the bomb and fuel-laden aircraft. Subsequent explosions caused it to quickly sink with countless sailors perishing in the process.

Shortly after hostilities in Okinawa ended, Archie and many other pilots went home on leave with Archie heading back to Hinsdale, Ill. It was there in early August that he heard the news that the Japanese surrendered unconditionally thereby ending World War II.

Upon hearing the news, he contacted his squadron and was told to stay home and await further orders. Soon thereafter, he was discharged from active duty.

Since September was right around the corner, he immediately matriculated back to Amherst College, this time with the GI Bill of Rights paying his way through school. He finished his last two years of college graduating in 1947 and then decided to attend University of Michigan School of Law. It was while he was a law student that he went back into the active reserves and learned how to fly two other Navy fighters used extensively in the Pacific, the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair.

A year after Archie graduated from law school in 1950, he married a girl whom he met while at law school. She was an undergrad at University of Michigan and her name was “Buff,” a nickname given her by her siblings when they were young and unable to correctly pronounce Elizabeth.

It was not long thereafter when he and Buff were expecting their first child but it was also at this time that the Korean War was underway. In that he had been suffering from an occasional bout of colitis while in law school, the Navy decided to medically discharge him. This development came as a huge relief to Archie and his bride in light of the upcoming arrival of their first child.

Archie then left his sea bag behind permanently, as many of his generation did, and began the professional and domestic phases of his life. While he served in various corporate counsel positions with banks, consumer product companies and manufacturing firms in Chicago and then in New York City, he and Buff had five children, with the last one appearing in 1964.

For most of his working years, Archie, Buff, and his growing brood lived in Larchmont, N.Y., where he took an early retirement in 1982 to take care of Buff who was tragically stricken down by cancer. She passed away in 1987.
During his time in Larchmont, Archie was also active in town politics with both the Trustees (the equivalent of our Board of Selectmen) in addition to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Well before his retirement, Archie also became a serious competitor in the Masters’ Track and Field competitions running the 400, 800 and 1500-meter distances.

Still works out at the gym

At age 45, Archie ran the 800 meter distance in 2:11 and the 1500 in 4:38, times so fast that he was elected to the Masters Track and Field Hall of Fame in California. To be this fast, Archie would train every day, rain or shine, beginning his runs at 5:15 every morning while it was still dark.

He would continue to perform in various Masters Competitions regionally and all over the globe until just three years ago where, at the tender age of 84, he decided to hang his runner’s cleats up once and for all. But even now he still insists on running interval workouts several times a week at the Latitudes Gym on Route 1 and shows no signs of slowing down.

In 1987, he met Jane, his present wife, while skiing at Waterville Valley. After their wedding in 1990, he moved to Lake George, N.Y., where Jane had her house. There they remained until just last year when they moved to 4 Mile Village to live closer to one of Jane’s daughters (Jane has three children from a previous marriage) who also lives in Boxford.

Archie regrets never having kept in contact with his fellow squadron mates. This stems in great part from his particular squadron never having had any of the reunions one so often hears about from other military units, especially those involved in combat.

In light of Veterans Day being right around the corner (Nov. 11), we all owe a great deal of debt and gratitude to Archie and all those like him who did more than their share to ensure our liberty and freedom.

When you have the chance, please go out of your way to shake the hand of a veteran — each and every one deserves that small but heartfelt gesture of appreciation and gratitude.

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November 12, 2010

2 Responses

  1. Joe Kessell - November 12, 2010


    God Bless You for your service to this country as we salute all those that have served and are currently serving.

    Your the ultimate champion in my eyes.

    Joe Kessell

  2. JStone - November 13, 2010

    Thank goodness that the enemy never got a chance to shoot the Messenger! Yeah, I know it’s an old joke, but it was just sitting there for the taking.

    More importantly, thank you for your service and a belated happy Veteran’s Day to you and all of the other heroes that made our country great and keep us free!

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