About Alumni

UM's Fighter Poet

John J. Schulz ’62, Cape Charles, Va., recently published Songs from a Distant Cockpit, an account in poetry and prose of his life as an F-100 Super Sabre pilot in Vietnam.

John J. Schulz

In an interview with the Alumni Association, John, a 1995 Distinguished Alumnus, shared insights on his journey as a writer.

Just out of high school, John had to choose between a football scholarship to Notre Dame and a full-tuition scholarship to the School of Journalism at the University of Montana. It was a tough decision, but John always had dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent, so the Grizzlies won out.

Part of what earned him the J-school scholarship was a sonnet he’d written for a class assignment. John’s education in poetry took off at Missoula’s Loyola High School, where students were required to memorize a poem every day and recite it in front of the class on demand. John says at least parts of about 200 of these poems stick in his head to this day. Rhythms and rhyme schemes became automatic for him, and about two-thirds of the verse that appear in Songs use classic meters.
During college, John went on to win a prize for his poetry, wrote for the Montana Kaimin, served as an AFROTC cadet, became vice president of Sigma Chi, and earned three letters as a Grizzly quarterback. It wasn’t long before John had his sights set on the sky.

Commissioned in the Air Force at graduation, he trained to fly close-air-support fighter-bombers through the jungles of Vietnam. His craft, the F-100 Super Sabre, was widely known as “the most dangerous plane ever built,” killing twenty-nine of its sixty-eight pilots in John’s wing during his year there. He flew 275 missions in 1967-68 and earned twenty-two combat decorations, including the Silver Star.

In 1976, while working as a correspondent for Voice of America in Tokyo, he wrote his first version of Songs. A publisher quickly picked it up, but its final reviewers turned it down on the basis that, just two years out from the war’s end, no one would want to read a book about Vietnam.
It wasn’t until after the 2013 biennial Super Sabre Society reunion that John considered dusting off the manuscript. As banquet emcee, he decided to integrate a few of his poems into his remarks. He was nervous about his audience’s reaction. “These are tough people,” he says. “I don’t know how they’re going to handle poetry.” But John needed to be sure his account was true to the experience of his comrades. “As I left the stage,” he says, “guys were grabbing my arm. ‘You’ve got to get this published, J.J.,’ they said.”

John has been gratified by the reception of readers both military and civilian. Just six weeks after publication, Songs was picked up by the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum bookstores. For more information, e-mail the author at jjschulz@bu.edu.

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