In the shadow of the Patriot Freeway in north-central El Paso, Texas, blocks from the Saturday shoppers thronging the thoroughfares on the first warm Saturday of the year, scattered mourners dotted the grounds of the Concordia Cemetery, a Texas State Historical Cemetery, March 4, 2023, and tended to the gravesites of the departed in relative quiet.
Breaking the quiet and rumbling out the faint din of the interstate junction just off in the distance, riders from the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association Chapter 23-2 rode onto the grounds of the hardscrabble cemetery with a gasoline-fueled respect, leading long lines of riders who wore the black, red and yellow vests of the CVMA, a national nonprofit made of veterans who enjoy riding and advocate for fellow veterans and their families.
More than 100 years after 22-year old Army aviator 1st Lt. James “Buster” Biggs, an El Paso native, died tragically due to an engine failure in his SPAD XIII biplane over World War I France, Soldiers, veterans, El Paso city officials, and members of the public gathered at Concordia to remember his courage and re-dedicate his new headstone, March 4.
The day marked the culmination of efforts between CVMA Chapter 23-2, the non-profit Concordia Heritage Association and the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide a new headstone for Biggs’ grave, one of more than 60 military and veterans’ gravesites at Concordia that the CHA has marked for replacement due to wear.
According to Cris Martin, a CHA historian, as part of the group’s headstone replacement program, 17 new markers were laid in 2022 with more planned to be installed in 2023. In all, with help from volunteers, the lives and services of almost 300 service members, with histories that date back to Western Expansion and the Buffalo Soldiers, have been researched and recognized at Concordia.
The airfield at Bliss, which sports one of the largest runways in the U.S., is named after the 1914 El Paso High School graduate, denoting the long history of military service in El Paso.
“We’re here to honor a man who risked his safety in a time of war to contribute to the preservation of a way of life only known to those who dare to make and keep it,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Murray Jones, a 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade pilot and the keynote speaker for the ceremony. “Lieutenant James ‘Buster’ Biggs sacrificed in pursuit of this for himself, and assuredly for the ones he loved and his countrymen.”
First named after Biggs by the Army in 1925, during World War II it was redesignated Biggs Air Force Base. In 1973 it was returned to the Army, and retained its name, which it still holds today. BAAF is a valuable power projection infrastructure resource; Bliss deploys and redeploys tens of thousands of service members and civilians annually through the airfield.
“Lieutenant Biggs is among the fraternity of those that recognized that evil is real, prevalent, and the one constant proclivity of man throughout history,” said Jones during his remarks. “Some do not tolerate evil. At times, overcome with fear, they continue to march – to advance – to risk being harmed or killed to say ‘no longer,’ ‘no further,’ ‘no more.’
“In the words of John Stuart Mill, ‘War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse.’
“First lieutenant Biggs was a fighter pilot … credited with downing four German aircraft,” said Jones. “Today, we honor a man who answered the call that historically few do to protect the innocent, to protect the less powerful. To be free is not a law. It’s not a philosophy or an academic matter. It’s a state of being. Lieutenant Biggs was always free. He is free now and he is free forevermore.”