Unlike many other members of the so-called Greatest Generation, Jim Muri was not drafted into the military during World War Two or just before conflict broke out. (The U.S. its first peacetime draft in 1940.) Nor did Muri enlist in the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, causing an immediate spike in patriotic fervor and long lines of young men who signed up for the battle against the Germans and the Japanese.
Instead, Muri signed up for the Army in 1936, soon after graduating from high school, and economic reasons dominated his decision. Simultaneously, he set his sights on the sky, his goal to become an airplane pilot in the Army Air Corps, because of experiences he had as an adolescent in rural Eastern Montana.
“Jim was never much of farmer. He wanted to get out, and he did in ’36,” said his older brother, Bill, during an interview the author conducted with surviving family members at Bill Muri’s home in Miles City over Memorial Day weekend in 2014. The meeting took place about a year after Jim Muri died in Billings at age 94.
During the interview, Muri’s niece, Kathy (Muri) Boutelle (a high school classmate of the author), showed pictures of her grandparents’ homestead in nearby Cartersville.
“This will give you an idea of why he left. They nothing, absolutely nothing, but they continued to thrive and grow,” she said.
Jim Muri, a first-generation descendant of immigrants from Norway and Germany, learned welding in high school, and that skill led the Army to peg him for a welder position. The Army sent him to Eglin Field in Florida, and “he never came back,” a younger brother, Buck, said.
Muri’s ambitions, however, went beyond becoming a military welder. He caught the flying bug while a boy in the 1930s from seeing early commercial flights above his Eastern Montana surroundings and from the example set by a teenage friend, according to a 2007 research report. It was written by Air Force Major Robert B. Copes, stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Copes traveled to Billings, where Muri lived then, and Miles City to interview Muri and research his life story.
Copes writes that Muri saw Northwest Airlines Tri-Motor planes fly over the family ranch hgousew, following the Yellowstone River valley as they carried mail and passengers to Billings. Muri thought to himself, “one day I hope to fly one of those machines,” according to Copes.
Muri’s best friend, Henry Swarts, solidified Muri’s aspiration to become a pilot. Swarts earned a pilot’s license at the Miles City airport, and Muri “would spend … 60 cents to take the passenger train 35 miles into town to watch his friend fly and wish his parents had the money to let him fly, too.”
Copes says Muri could only watch Swarts fly while they were in high school, but Muri never faltered in his desire to become a pilot and his belief that he would achieve that goal. Graduating from Custer County High School signaled that Muri’s time had come. He and Swarts decided to enlist – Muri calculated that “the closer I could get to an airplane, the better chance I would have to fly one.”