Happy Birthday to the Airman in Black

Country music legend and American icon Johny Cash would have turned 87 today.  He sold over 90 million records, hosted his own television show, had an academy award winning film about his life, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.  (At 48, he was the youngest to be inducted into the country music hall of fame.) There are few musicians who made a more significant or as wide ranging of an impact as the Mr. Cash.

Most people know all this, but what they often don’t know is that the “Man in Black” was once Airforce Sergeant John R. Cash.

Johnny Cash was born in rural Arkansas to a large family with musical interests.  His name on his birth certificate actually read “J.R. Cash” because his parents could not agree on his first name.  He had 6 brothers and sisters, until his older brother died in a wood cutting accident at age fourteen.  Young J.R. witnessed the accident, and had to help dig his brother’s grave.  People who knew him best said that he could never fully get over this trauma as a youngster.  When he turned 18 he left Arkansas to work in an automobile factory in Michigan.  Just a few months later, the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel in an attempt to reunify the nation of Korea under Communist rule.  America was not going to let another country fall to the red menace, and war was on.  Johnny Cash decided to leave Michigan and volunteer to serve his country.  On July 7, 1950 he enlisted in the United States Air Force.

Cash did his basic training in Texas and Mississippi, but was sent to Europe rather than Asia.   He was assigned to the 12th radio squadron to Landsberg, Germany, about 40 miles west of Munich.  Airman Cash was very good at interpeting Morse Code.  Others in his unit raved at how fast and smart he was.  Because of this, he was assigned to an elite unit charged with intercepting and translating Soviet messages.  He was one of the few who could keep up with the fast pace of the very quick Russian coders.  On March 3, 1953, Cash intercepted an important message about Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.   He had suffered a massive heart attack, and was dead.  Johnny Cash, who quickly passed it along to his superiors, was the first American to learn the major news of the death of Joseph Stalin.

Photo Credit: Saving Country Music

Johnny Cash had always had an interest in music, which grew while he was stationed overseas.  Airmen were allowed only one phone call home a year, and Cash was often bored and lonely.  He used his first Air Force money to buy a guitar.  On his third day on Germany he watched a movie about Folsom Prison, which would always leave a mark on him, leading to his famous song about the prison as well as  his consistent efforts to play and care for prisoners.  While in Germany,  he formed his first band, “The Landsberg Barbarians” who would begin playing at a local officers club.  Before long, all of their shows were packed with excited fans. He wrote many songs while in Germany, including “Hey Porter” about the excitement he felt when he finally got to go home.

Cash was discharged on July 3, 1954.  He decided he would use his G.I. Bill to train to be a radio announcer.  He moved to Memphis, working as an appliance salesman while taking classes at night, playing music when he could find the time.  That summer, Cash heard Elvis Presley for the first time and decided he wanted to make music like the man who would one day be called “The King.”  He tried repeatedly to audition in front of Sam Phillips and Sun Records, but kept getting the brush off.  When Cash finally got Phillips to listen to him play, he sang for nearly three hours.  Soon after, Johnny Cash signed with Sun Records and the rest, as they say, is history.

Happy birthday to the Man in Black, who was once the Man in Air Force Blues.

Follow the Unfinished Pyramid on Twitter at https://twitter.com/unfinishedpyr

You might also enjoy this article about how Johnny Cash inspired Merle Haggard to turn his life around:


Or, if you don’t know the incredible story of Ronnie Milsap:



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