Major James R. Luntzel, Jr.
August 5, 1927 – August 9, 2015
Encinitas -- James Reid Luntzel, Jr., Major, USAF (Ret.), passed away August 9th, 2015 in San Diego at age 88 after a long and courageous fight against a variety of health ailments. A humble man of great fortitude, wide-ranging intellectual pursuits, and steadfast faith in his Creator, he devoted his life to serving his family and his country.
He was born to James Luntzel and Julia O’Day Luntzel in Louisville, Kentucky. In his youth, the family lived in Chicago, Pittsburg and Milwaukie before settling in the San Fernando Valley. In January 1945, at age 17 immediately following his graduation from North Hollywood HS, Jim was accepted into the US Navy’s V5 aviation program – but with the end of WWII, he was assigned to serving on tugboats in the San Joaquin Delta. After two years at Occidental College, Jim joined the US Air Force earning his navigator’s wings and Lieutenant’s gold bars while the Korean War was underway. Shortly after being commissioned, he married Lora Lee Murphy of North Hollywood. While serving as a Strategic Air Command aerial refueling navigator at Castle AFB, California, Jim and Lora Lee brought their first of six children, James III, in to the world and then headed off for pilot training. Finishing at the top of his class, Jim opted to become an air rescue pilot flying the amphibious Grumman Albatross at Hickam AFB, Hawaii where second son Jeffrey Rae was born. The Air Rescue Service motto, “That Others May Live” exemplified his life’s mission.
After completing his B.A. from UCLA and with sons Gregory John and Donald Easterling coming on board, the family headed up to Hamilton AFB in Marin County. Fate played an interesting part in many of Jim’s aviation exploits, including his rescue of Jim III’s future father-in-law who crashed a fighter in the San Pablo Bay. Following a tour with the Eastern Rescue Center in Georgia where eldest daughter Victoria Jane evened the boy/girls score a bit, Jim was transferred to Wheelus AB in Tripoli, Libya, and was followed there by the growing family after the birth of Karen Elizabeth in North Hollywood. Jim and his crew provided rescue cover on many high priority and classified Cold War missions throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, including air rescue support from bases in Central Africa for the Mercury space missions. One memorable unplanned mission occurred while accompanying son Jeff (who had suffered a severely fractured jaw) on a medical evacuation flight to Germany. Well into the mission, a flight nurse quietly asked Jim if he could fly the C-54 transport as the aircraft commander was incapacitated with food poisoning and the copilot was on his first flight – Jim took control of the aircraft and made a safe landing in blizzard conditions.
Following a stint as a headquarters planning and staff officer at Travis AFB, the family returned to Hamilton AFB. For his final Air Force assignment, Jim volunteered to fly the C-7A Caribou transport in Vietnam [536th]. Primarily supporting Army Special Forces camps and hauling everything from ammo to water buffaloes, he put his many thousands of flying hours to work in some of the most challenging conditions imaginable. On his last mission making air drops to the besieged SF camp at Dak Seang, while facing a gauntlet of ferocious ground fire, Jim and his crew put their load on the mark before being hit and forced to land on one engine. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this heroic mission in a battle that saw the loss of six Caribous.
After retiring from the USAF, Jim earned his MA in Russian Studies from the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies – expanding his knowledge of geopolitics, history and linguistics. Jim and Lora Lee relocated to San Diego before joining Bell Helicopters in Isfahan, Iran – just in time for the revolution in 1979. Jim helped coordinate the evacuation of Bell employees and families from Tehran and then returned to San Diego. While working as a real estate appraiser, Jim became the first American member of the Baja California Board of Realtors. Always a voracious reader and prolific writer, Jim had numerous articles on a wide range of professional and historical topics published in a variety of professional journals and magazines. His book, “Leningrad Diary: One Surprise after Another in the USSR” chronicled his observations and analysis of post-Communist Russia after an extended visit there.
Jim and Lora Lee spent 18 years in Apple Valley and Victorville to be near Lora Lee’s folks (golf pro Fred and Elnora Murphy). Jim particularly enjoyed hosting many action-packed visits by their adult children and their growing troop of grandchildren. They made the move to in Encinitas in 2006.
Jim was preceded in death by his parents, and brother Don and sister Lynne. He is survived by Lora Lee, his wife of 64 years, his sons Colonel, USAF (ret.) Jim Luntzel (Colleen) of Terrebonne, Oregon, Jeff Luntzel of San Francisco, Greg Luntzel (Holly) of Valley Village, Don Luntzel (fiancÚ Brenda) of Spokane, Washington, and daughters Vicki Luntzel of San Diego and Karen (Marc) Vigdor of La Mesa; grandchildren Jenelle (Nathan), Anne (Guy), Daniel (Hitomi), Bonnie (Doug), Jimmy (Autumn), Matthew, Kimberley, Kaeley, Robbie, Michael, Gregory, Jonny, and Samuel, and great grandchildren Dulce, Ella, Felix, Joshua and Noah.
A memorial mass will be held Thursday, August 27 at 12:30pm at St John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Encinitas followed by a graveside service at 2pm at Miramar National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to Operation Heal Our Patriots at www.samaritanspurse.org or by phone at (828) 262-1980.