On August 6, 1945, a U.S. Navy sailor from Kansas celebrated his 19th birthday aboard the U.S.S. Chevalier. As the ship headed through Pacific waters toward Japan, the atomic bomb was dropped—ending the war and sparing him and his crewmates from likely death.
This sailor was aptly named Fish. He would live on to marry Patricia and together raise three beloved children: James, Julie, and John. James would carry his namesake, his military service, and his fight to save lives.
James Fishback of Leawood, a celebrated doctor and respected colonel, is that son honored here today:
“In the ‘70s, a beginning medical student with a master’s degree in biochemistry came into my KUMC lab to introduce himself,” says Lynwood R. Yarbrough, PhD, of Leawood. “Fish worked in my lab, and we published several [medical] papers together.”
When Dr. Yarbrough, an expert in biochemistry and molecular biology, left to work with a Nobel Prize-winning scientist on DNA sequencing, he put Fish in charge of his research laboratory. They soon became close friends--hunting, fishing, and discussing medicine and other sciences.
“Fish was bright, hardworking, a quick study, and a genuinely nice individual who worked well with people,” Yarbrough says. “He really connected with medical students to whom he taught pathology. For 20 consecutive years, they selected him to receive the outstanding teacher award.”
Fish was passionate about education, but he couldn’t ignore the call of duty. He joined the Air Force Reserves (reaching Colonel) and served for 25 years. Fish had two active deployments in Iraq as an A-10 flight surgeon and became Vice Commander of the 442nd Medical Squadron at Whiteman AFB.
Fish had to undergo the same g-force training as pilots to endure A-10 maneuvers without losing consciousness. When an A-10 arrives, soldiers say its unique echo “sounds like freedom.”
“Fish greatly admired the pilots and crews of the A-10 squadron,” Yarbrough says. “And they greatly admired him, too.”
Squadron pilot Dewayne Burgess agrees: “Fish was one of the top flight surgeons I knew during my 33+ years in uniform. Pilots were trained early to fear what the flight docs could do to our careers, so we were tight-lipped about medical issues for fear of being grounded. Almost immediately we knew Fish was different. His No.1 objective was to get us well if there was a legitimate problem and then keep us flying.”
Burgess says Fish followed regulations but never viewed fighter pilots as “lab rats or medical training opportunities.”
“No doubt that had something to do with his maturity when he joined,” Burgess says, “but I think it was more about his patriotism to support the mission. Fish earned the pilots’ respect and improved our future treatment through his example.”
After retiring, Fish continued to defend America against biological threats as a medical intelligence analyst. This past January, Fish and his wife, Meg, traveled to Singapore where Fish spoke on medical education. Fish and Meg took a photo of themselves riding an elephant before flying home.
The next morning at 8 a.m., at age 63, Fish was gone too soon from this earth.
Thank you for your service, James Fishback. May your story influence another life.
“I was extraordinarily proud of his accomplishments, and I miss him every day.”
—Meg Fishback, Leawood