VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — In dress blue uniforms underneath a rainy sky, hundreds of sailors gathered Friday outside a chapel at Naval Air Station Oceana as the somber sound of taps played in a final tribute to two of their own.
As the song faded, a missing-man formation flew overhead to say one last farewell to Lt. Cmdr. James Brice “Drama” Johnson and Lt. Caleb “She-Ra” King. Both men were killed in an F/A-18F Super Hornet crash on March 14 while they were training near Key West, Fla., in an incident that is still under investigation.
The men had been combat tested in the skies over Iraq and Syria, where each earned awards for taking out enemy fighters who were threatening U.S. allies. Friends and colleagues remembered the men on Friday as representing the best that naval aviation has to offer. The base chapel’s pews were packed with people who cried and laughed as stories about each man were told. A private funeral for Johnson was held in Virginia Beach last week, while one was held for King in Florida.
The memorial service on Friday was aimed at providing a moment for the naval aviation community to gather as one. “It’s not just an opportunity for us to mourn, but to celebrate their accomplishments, their service and sacrifice,” Capt. James McCall, the commander of Carrier Air Wing 8, said shortly before the memorial.
McCall flew with the men on their most recent deployment aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, where they were assigned to the “Fighting Blacklions” of Fighter Squadron 213. He said one of the things that always stood out to him is how each of them always had a smile on his face.
“These guys were affable young men,” McCall said. “They were dedicated to the service of their country.”
Johnson, who preferred to be called by his middle name, grew up in an Air Force family who took him to bases around the country, including a brief stint at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. Before he was commissioned in the Navy, he attended the Air Force Academy, where he met his wife.
Friends described Johnson as a dedicated husband and a talented pilot who was almost humble to a fault. In the days before the crash, he spent hours trying to convince one of his colleagues over a glass of bourbon that he needed a “complete re-fly” on something he had actually scored as “an above-average pass.”
“I consider myself lucky to be able to fly with him on so many combat missions,” Lt. John Hesling said. “He worked hard, he learned quickly, he was hard on himself, and he always strived to be that much better on his next flight.”
More important, though, Hesling said, Johnson was a good friend and completely selfless.
“You could always place your absolute trust in Drama’s sage advice,” he said.
“He had a magnetic personality, perfect hair, pedicured toes and a beaming smile that just made you want to be around him. He was one of the most fun people in the Blacklion family and was always looking for ways to make others smile with his self-deprecating humor, his pranks and his antics.”
In short, Hesling said, Johnson is what you would call a “good dude.”
A good dude is exactly what King looked for in others, one of his friends said.
He believed if that criteria was met, he could get past all the other faults a person might have. Well, except for poor gym etiquette. That was one thing he couldn’t forgive.
King was a former linebacker at the Naval Academy and continued to work out like one after he graduated in 2012 and became a weapons systems operator. And if someone didn’t put things back in the gym, he was quick to point it out.
Lt. Kevin O’Neill said that although King had his serious face – like the one in his official Navy portrait – he also had an infectious laugh. He said King was always looking to meet new people and he felt lucky to have had King as a roommate.
He recalled a trip to see King’s family in Daytona Beach for the Daytona 500. King was in his element, sitting in the infield wearing cut-off shorts and a shirt with the sleeves cut off. He said King showed him how much fun you could have rooting against NASCAR driver Kyle Busch and how many new friends you could make doing it.
“That spectacle is something I’ll never forget, and I know it was a lasting memory for everyone that got to see it,” O’Neill said.
It is stories like those, said the Naval Academy chaplain who married King and his wife, Victoria, that people should remember.
“Our new mission is to go forth and continue to tell the story,” Chaplain Madison Carter said.
“We’ll tell the story of that contagious laugh. We’ll tell the story of those wonderful hugs. … We’ll tell the story of how they changed each of us.”
Copyright 2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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