SPOTSYLVANIA — For half a century, James P. Beard kept a memento from the Vietnam War propped against the wall of his Spotsylvania County home.
It was an AK-47 rifle, the primary infantry weapon used by the North Vietnamese army against American troops. Beard never slogged through the jungles of Southeast Asia, but as an Air Force pilot, he often was summoned to bring down the heat.
Flying an A-37 Dragonfly, a light attack aircraft capable of getting in and out of tight spots, Beard regularly led airstrikes that supported troops on the ground.
Members of the 25th Infantry Division thanked Beard for having their backs. In 1969, infantry leaders presented him an AK-47 confiscated from the enemy.
Beard, who later retired as a colonel, had to take apart the weapon to get it stateside.
“I brought the rifle home in my parachute bag,” reassembled it and kept it in a corner for 50 years, Beard said. “I figured it was time for somebody else to have it.”
In the mind of the 87-year-old, there’s only one place on Earth more significant than a cockpit.
That would be Virginia Tech, which Beard attended after he graduated from Spotsylvania High School in 1950. After four years with Tech’s Corps of Cadets, Beard was commissioned in the Air Force, where he spent the next 27 years flying 23 different aircraft. He completed 334 combat missions in Vietnam.
Beard returned to his alma mater on Friday — and took with him the AK-47, which he presented to the Corps of Cadets Museum. The rifle was no longer usable, as it was bolted to a wooden board and bears a plaque with Beard’s name.
“We’ve very pleased to have such a historical piece from such an accomplished alum,” said museum curator Samantha Riggin. “The commandant [Maj. Gen. Randal Fullhart] was certainly happy to see him, and they had a nice, long chat.”
As he has done repeatedly over the decades, Beard thought about those who died in Southeast Asia as he took one last look at the AK-47. When he and his wife, Carolyn, were younger, they often visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and paid their respects to more than 58,000 souls whose names were etched in stone.
“There were so many of them who didn’t make it home,” Beard said. “That’s what bothers you at night when you’re trying to sleep. You wonder, where are their kids? Where are their wives now?”
Beard was a standout pitcher on Tech’s baseball team and was admitted to the school’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. He joined its Aviation Hall of Fame three years later.
As an adult, Beard bought his parents land and a better house, which he inherited after they died. He still raises cattle on the same acreage his father did, joking that he had to retire from two jobs — the Air Force, followed by 23 years as a manager with Caterpillar equipment — to be able to afford to be a farmer.
While he’s happy to talk about his time in the skies, Beard downplays the hazards he faced.
His son, Jimmy Beard Jr., acknowledged “the dangers of flying” and marveled at his dad’s nerve and tenacity as well as the intensity he brought to every task. It didn’t matter if his father was pitching, flying or explaining the latest snowplow Caterpillar offered.
“Failure is not an option” wasn’t a catchy phrase; it was James Beard’s life motto.