A song takes flight

Muri’s flight got airtime in the mid-1970s when noted country western radio announcer Lonnie Bell, of Billings, Montana, tapped the lore about the flight and composed a patriotic ballad titled “Midway” about Muri’s feat. Bell, a fellow World War II veteran, was a crewman on PBY scout planes for the Navy; his plane patrolled during the Battle of Coral Sea in early May 1942. Bell was stationed in Hawaii a few weeks later when the Midway battle occurred.

Bell wrote his song without knowing that a fellow Montanan, Muri, was the pilot of the legendary B-26. He didn’t meet Muri until 2001 when a friend, Don Cooper, told Bell they had met at his daughter’s house during a Thanksgiving dinner. Bell, who had assumed the pilot of the famous No. 1391 bomber was dead, was initially skeptical. “Was Ulysses S. Grant and Abe Lincoln in that same bar, Coop?” he asked his friend, according to Billings Gazette reporter Tom Howard’s account of the meeting in 2002, on the 60th anniversary of the battle.

Muri’s military renown was a far cry from the humble Depression-era surroundings in which he grew up. He enlisted in the Army Air Force after high school, seeking a better life, and started as a welder at Eglin Air Field in Florida.

“Jim was never much of a farmer,” his older brother Bill said during a Memorial Day 2014 conversation I had with several family members at Bill’s house in Miles City, Montana. “He wanted to get out and he did in ‘36 (1936).”

One of his nieces, Kathy (Muri) Boutelle, a former classmate of mine at Custer County High School (CCHS), helped facilitate the conversation with her elderly relatives. Those involved included Bill Muri, Al “Buck” Muri (Kathy’s father), their sister, Marie Ansoms, known to her siblings as “Toots”, and two younger brothers, Karl and Pete. All of the Muri siblings, except Bill, who lost a leg in a childhood farm accident, served in the military during World War II, the Korean War (Karl) and during peacetime in the 1950s (Pete).

Buck Muri lied about his age and enlisted in the Merchant Marine at age 17 near the end of World War II. Two brothers, deceased at the time of our meeting, also were World War II pilots: Andy, who flew B-24 transport planes to Australia and elsewhere in the Pacific, and Bob, a B-17 Liberator pilot who was shot down on a mission over Germany and spent 17 months in a POW camp. Toots served as a military nurse in the United States in the 1940s.

“This will give you an idea of why (Jim Muri) left” to join the Army, Kathy Boutelle said, showing a picture of her grandparents’ Cartersville homestead.

“You can see how poor they were. They had absolutely nothing. But they managed to thrive and grow.”

Despite his aversion to farming, Jim yielded to the lure of a Future Farmers of America chapter at CCHS. He chose to attend high school there rather than at the closer high school in Rosebud, Montana. Several brothers also became students in Miles City, where they lived with their widowed grandmother and helped her with chores. This gave Jim a chance for some good-natured mischief later related by his surviving siblings.

One evening, for example, Jim put a wolf pelt in his grandmother’s bed.

“Grandma said we’ve got a snake in the bed,” Buck Muri recalled. The Muri’s grandmother, of German descent who reportedly had served as a nanny to Kaiser Wilhelm decades earlier before migrating to the U.S., had never been to a high school basketball game before her grandsons enrolled at CCHS. Buck said his grandmother expressed interest in seeing a game, probably because the Cowboys were becoming the toast of the town and of Montana. They won the 1936 all-state tournament, and Jim Muri got extensive playing time on the team.

Buck said he and his brothers made their grandmother “half embarrassed” with a fib. Someone said: “Granny, I don’t know if you want to go. They played naked, you know. Oh, may god. She had a fit.” Laughter burst out in Bill Muri’s living room at the retelling of the 80-year-old anecdote.