ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS)-
Asian American, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a time when we reflect on the boundless spectrum of cultures in our country and celebrate the inspiring contributions of Americans to our history. I would love to tell the story of an American aviator whose story I learned about later in my career, but I wish I had known much sooner.
Sabu Dastagir was an Indian-American actor best known for his work in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. He was born in Mysore, India in 1924 and was discovered by a producer at the age of 13. Known as “Sabu,” he has starred in film roles such as The Thief of Baghdad and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Eventually he received US citizenship and in 1960 Sabu was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Like other Hollywood actors during World War II, such as Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, Sabu chose to volunteer for the war Army Air Force. He served as a tail gunner, primarily in the Pacific Theater with the 370th Bomb Squadron, part of the 307th Bomb Group. During this time, Cpl. Dastagir flew dozens of combat missions. For his bravery he was awarded five air medals as well as the Excellent flying cross with “Valor”, one of the highest honors that can be awarded to an aviator.
Tragically, Dastagir passed away in 1963 at the age of 40. With the deaths of so many of the “greatest generation” many of their individual stories of bravery have faded from memory. I came across Sabu’s story later in my Air Force career. I’ve always wondered why I’ve never heard or read more of him. Looking back, I wish I had found out about him much sooner. As an Indian American, I was interested in serving in the Air Force at an early age and wanted to be one. Many in my community saw my path as unconventional. It was often expected that I would become a doctor or a lawyer, and people balked at my desire to participate US Air Force Academy. If only they had known about Sabu’s brave story, they might have seen my ambitions in a different light!
Luckily I had parents and teachers who encouraged me to pursue my dreams and so I did. Were there any challenges? Absolutely. There have always been critics who would prefer to pigeonhole me into a traditional stereotype. Today I find the term “non-traditional” less useful for aviators and pilots Guardian in office or even candidates contemplating service. Our country’s next great generation “dreams extreme” every day, and as our nation becomes more diverse, more AANHPIs are stepping up, raising their right hands and joining the long blue line.
But knowing Sabu’s story and being armed with his legacy of bravery every day changes the game. When you hear the stories of people you can relate to, even the toughest challenges suddenly become possible. In my case, it took a few tries before I was accepted Air Force Academy. I believe that is the lasting legacy of pioneers like Sabu Dastagir – they give us the courage to believe in ourselves, to keep trying and to persevere despite the challenges we face.
In 2008 I had the chance to fly to Afghanistan with a diversity C-17 Globemaster III Crew. We came from all walks of life – Japanese Americans, blacks, whites, Christians, Hindus and whatever. During a stopover in Europe we had the opportunity to interact with citizens at a local pub. A citizen approached us and remarked that he couldn’t believe that we could function as a crew with so many cultural differences. He thought the plane would eventually crash. Of course, my crew’s unanimous response was, “That’s what makes America so strong!” Airmen and Guardians represent the full breadth of cultures in our country. Your presence shows time and time again that the true strength of our nation does not reside solely in the example of our power, but rather in the power of our example.
Ultimately, stories matter. Representation matters. That’s why I’m proud to reveal the little-known story of Sgt. Sabu Dastagir, an American aviator. Had I known his story of bravery when I was younger, applying to the academy might have seemed a little less daunting. Such is the power of an aviator’s legacy and its impact on future generations. I recently attended the graduation ceremony for our newest trainees Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. After reading the inspirational Pass-in review, I have peace of mind knowing that our next greatest generation with Sabu’s legacy is ready to face the challenges of the future.
That makes America strong and resilient. Let’s remember all the fliers and sentinels in the past, present and future. Brash and sometimes unpolished, bold by nature and always willing to push boundaries – it’s in our DNA as a service and legacy as Airmen. We are the best in the world at what we do. One team, one fight, nothing is more important than the other and always ready to fly, fight and win!