“That We in Faithful Service Fell”: Jim Lewis, an American hero remembered.

For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.
For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.
ROMANS 14: 7-8.

The solemn reading of this scripture penetrated deeply into the heavy hearts of all those gathered in the auditorium of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley. Virginia. Eleven days earlier, on Monday, April 18, 1983, a truck so laden with explosives that its tires bulged made its way along the seaside Corniche in Beirut, Lebanon. The vehicle and its driver were on a mission of death and destruction and heading directly for the eight-story building overlooking the shiny blue Mediterranean Sea.

The U.S. Embassy.

U.S. Embassy, Beirut Lebanon, April 18, 1983, after the terrorist suicide bombing.  Photo by Francoise de Mulder, Toger Violet and courtesy of Getty Images.

U.S. Embassy, Beirut Lebanon, April 18, 1983, after the terrorist suicide bombing. Photo by Francoise de Mulder, Toger Violet and courtesy of Getty Images.


At lunch-time, precisely 1:06 p.m. on that sunny April afternoon thirty-one years ago today, the truck turned into the embassy driveway and the driver suddenly accelerated the vehicle and sent it smashing into the building’s front doors, where its ton of explosives detonated, utterly destroying the building and killing seventeen Americans and forty-six foreign nationals. Among the murdered Americans were eight members of the CIA, the Agency’s entire Beirut station, save one case officer, who by chance happened to be off the embassy grounds.

Two members of the CIA station who died in that blast were James (Jimmy) Lewis and his wife, Monique. Since his eighteenth birthday, when he enlisted in the Army and went off to Vietnam, until the day he died, Jimmy Lewis had spent his entire adult life in the service of his country.

Stars on the Wall at CIA headquarters.  Currently there are 107. Jim and Monique Lewis are two of them.

Stars on the Wall at CIA headquarters. Currently there are 107. Jim and Monique Lewis are two of them.


Long before he died that April afternoon, he had already become a legend both in the CIA and in the U.S. Army. In the next few years, when conversations would turn to the Embassy bombing and the Middle East, Jimmy Lewis’s name sometimes would crop up; always mentioned with admiration…and always with circumspection.
CIA Book of Honor: For almost twenty years, other than Robert C. Ames, the spaces for the other Agency personnel who dies on April 18, 1983 would remain blank. Click on photo to enlarge.

CIA Book of Honor: For almost twenty years, other than Robert C. Ames, the spaces for the other Agency personnel who dies on April 18, 1983 would remain blank. Click on the photo to enlarge


What little I did learn about him, I must have automatically filed away somewhere deep down in my subconscious. A quarter of a century later, when I started writing my series of Doherty mystery novels, I created a co-protagonist by the name of Hank Jackson, who, like all my protagonists, was a composite of my life and that of others that I knew or knew of. As I began fleshing out Hank in the first novel of the series, The Ides of June, I realized that to a large degree, I was recreating Jimmy Lewis, a Jimmy Lewis who, within my novels as Hank Jackson, could still live, live by his code and creed and who could still serve his country.

So in this article, I would like to talk a little about Jimmy Lewis, the soldier, the covert-action officer, the quiet hero who inspired all those he served with, both in the Special Forces and the CIA. The Jimmy Lewis who so profoundly impacted me that years later as I sat writing in the corner of a café on the Marseille waterfront, he would resurface as Hank Jackson, leaping back to life as my hand moved a pen across the pages of a notebook. Since that day, I have featured Hank Jackson in three published novels and three published short stories.

Jim Lewis was born in 1944 as James Forrest Pittman, Jr. in rural Yolubusha County, Mississippi. His father was off serving as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and when he returned from the war, he fought another one—with alcohol and losing badly, shoved off when Jimmy was three, leaving Jimmy’s mother, Antoinette Pittman, to care for Jimmy and his two brothers and sister. Antoinette Pittman eventually remarried, this time to a man named George Lewis who adopted Jimmy, and the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona.

U.S. Army Special Forces Airborne

U.S. Army Special Forces Airborne


As a teenager, Jimmy grew to be a good-looking, lanky six-foot-two inch quiet fellow who belonged to the high-school ROTC. As soon as he enlisted in the Army, he made it known that he wanted to become a member of the Special Forces—a Green Beret. And he had the commitment and courage to make it. By 1967, at age 23, he was commanding MIKE FORCE, a Special Forces trained unit of mercenary Montagnard soldiers whose mission was to back up or rescue Green Beret units under heavy attack in the bush. In a few months, he would become a Second Lieutenant, and still serving with the Special Forces, would receive a cluster of awards, including two Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, an Air Medal and a Gallantry Cross.

By 1969, he was leading many Special Forces missions at the behest of the CIA and in 1970 he joined the Agency under the JEWEL PROGRAM, which recruited personnel with first-class paramilitary skills. He found himself back in Vietnam, operating both in-country and over the state line in Laos under the code name SWORD. The missions Jimmy Lewis led over the next few years in Southeast Asia are still classified. In the spring of 1975, the North Vietnamese Army overran South Vietnamese units that he was advising and in the retreat, he was badly wounded by an exploding B-40 rocket and captured.

Son Tây Prison Camp, 30 miles northwest of Hanoi:  On Nov. 21, 1970, a joint U.S. Air Force-U.S. Army Special Forces rescue mission, code-named Operation IVORY COAST, seized the prison camp in an attempt to free between 61 and perhaps as many as 100 American POWs being held there.  The plan was carried out superbly but the mission failed because the POWs had been moved only days before.  In the summer and fall of 1975, a badly-wounded Jimmy Lewis was held there, the camp’s only American prisoner.  His wounds were left untreated while he underwent unrelenting interrogation and torture.

Son Tây Prison Camp, 30 miles northwest of Hanoi: On Nov. 21, 1970, a joint U.S. Air Force-U.S. Army Special Forces rescue mission, code-named Operation IVORY COAST, seized the prison camp in an attempt to free between 61 and perhaps as many as 100 American POWs being held there. The plan was carried out superbly but the mission failed because the POWs had been moved only days before. In the summer and fall of 1975, a badly-wounded Jimmy Lewis was held there, the camp’s only American prisoner. His wounds were left untreated while he underwent unrelenting interrogation and torture.


He was taken to the notorious Son Tây Prison Camp where for months he was kept in isolation in a tiny concrete cell, his wounds untended, starved, deprived of sleep, beaten, tortured and incessantly interrogated. On October 30, 1975, he was suddenly released, under circumstances also classified and as murky as his covert missions.

After a brief hospitalization and some time with his family, Jimmy was brought to Washington, D.C. by the Agency for extensive debriefing and psychological counseling. He enrolled in George Washington University and majored in French language and literature, also acquiring a love of fine wine and cuisine. In 1977, he married Monique, a Vietnamese pharmacologist who had been educated in France and Switzerland and who was as fluent in French as her new husband.

Like Jim Lewis, my character Hank Jackson is a Southern boy, born and raised in North Carolina, not far from Fayetteville and Fort Bragg. And like Jimmy his father also served in uniform. There are differences, however. Hank’s father never returned from Vietnam and Hank is named after Henry Berry Lowry, a 19th century Lumbee, a Native-American leader who fought for his people’s rights. And while they both majored in French, Hank reversed Jimmy’s process, by first attending Princeton on an ROTC scholarship, then going into the Army. But like Jimmy, he has an intense interest in foreign languages, cultures, food and wine, and he is as comfortable in the kitchen as in the deep snows of a rocky mountain gorge; under a mosquito-infested canopy of an equatorial jungle or the crowded streets of a hostile city.

Little is known about Jimmy’s CIA work after his graduation from George Washington but by 1979, he was studying Arabic and by 1982, he was assigned to the Beirut station, already the scene of several recent assassinations and bombings and at that time considered the most dangerous posting in the Agency. On Sunday night, April 17, 1983, he was hosting a small dinner party for his fellow case officers and other CIA personnel. He had prepared the food and selected the wine. The dinner was a special occasion, for the next day was to be Monique Lewis’s first day at work for the CIA. The day the truck bomb would go off.

When the bodies of Jim and Monique Lewis were found buried deep under the rubble of the destroyed embassy building, they were together, holding hands.

The other CIA personnel that died that day were the Beirut Chief of Station, Kenneth Eugene Haas, 38; Robert C. Ames, the Agency’s top Middle East expert, 49; Frank J. Johnston, William Richard Shiel, Deborah M. Hixson and Phyliss Faraci.

During the memorial service in the CIA auditorium, Director William J. Casey honored their bravery by citing the words written on a rock by the dying Greek soldiers at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. as they were being overwhelmed by a vastly larger Persian force: Go, passerby, and to Sparta tell that we in faithful service fell.

Today, just as on all the other days when I write of Hank Jackson, I think of James Forrest Lewis, Jr. and I also think of Audie Murphy’s creed: “I believe in all the men who stood up against the enemy, taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting. The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent.”

Jimmy Lewis may never have written a creed for himself or others like Audie Murphy did, but if he had I am sure it would not have differed greatly. Murphy, the most-decorated U.S. soldier of World War II, despite fighting post-war demons of his own, became a successful actor, starring in many western films and a movie To Hell and Back about his war-time experiences. One day, hopefully someone will produce a film about Jimmy Lewis. Until then, there will be only sporadic remembrances such as this article to inspire us. But what inspirations they will be!

Comments

  1. James Lewis is my uncle. He was my mothers older brother. I remember seeing Uncle Jimmy only a few times. When he was a pow, his girlfriend, Hang< lived with us. When I was little, we had a special phone in our house that only my mother was to answer and day she was Jimmy's girlfriend Janet. it never rang. The day Jimmy and Monique were killed, my mother saw a double rainbow then she said she saw Jesus walking across the street at the stop sign in front of our house. She walked through the door and there on the tv was news of the bombing.
    I forwarded this site to my mother and grandma Lewis. thank-you
    Julie Nickel

    • Major Coley Grubb says

      I was a classmate of Jim Lewis. OCS 9-66 @ Ft Knox, Ky. We graduated in late May 1966. I considered Jim a great classmate & friend. We crossed paths in Vietnam, I had just arrived & he was departing. Then again 1976 @ Ft Bragg, NC.He was in civilian clothes & I was in uniform. He showed me an ID card from Dept. of State & said he was attending SF Warfare center.

      • Stan Trybulski says

        Major, please accept my apologies for the delayed response. I have been traveling for a while and out of touch with the world! I am always glad to hear from those who knew Jim Lewis. I have not posted your comment as I am not sure whether you wanted private to me or not. I did hear from a close relative of Jim’s a while back but never did get a chance to speak with his mom.
        Best,
        Stan

  2. Fresh from my own “escape” of sorts, I talked to Jim in Saigon, the morning of the day he was captured. I rejoiced when he was released, and I mourned when he and Monique died in Beirut, a place I would soon visit. He was a brother in arms.

    • Stan Trybulski says

      Chip; glad for the comment taking us back to another time; another place. I’m interested to know what you talked about; his mood, yours. PS neat artwork!
      Stan

  3. Joe Englehardt says

    I was walking in Arlington National Cemetery today and noticed Jim & Monique’s grave there.

  4. I am related to James Lewis very closely. He died before I was born, but I heard stories of him. I am glad he is finally getting the reconition he deserves.

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