Charlie the PJ is the official mascot of the US Air Force pararescue community and since 1964 has garnered a life of its own. Photo courtesy of Aaron Love.
On the tropical island group of Fiji one pleasant day in 1964, Airman Tony Willis, a legend within the US Air Force pararescue community, had a chance encounter with an unforgettable item — an 18-inch-tall head carved out of wood and shaped into a South Sea demigod with a nasty snarl.
Willis knew he couldn’t leave without the head. Although the legend remains a bit murky in its finer details, one unassailable fact persists: Willis’ rare find became the PJs’ new mascot, “Charlie the PJ.”
“Charlie graduated the pipeline,” Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Aaron Love, an Air Force pararescueman, or PJ, told the Late Night History podcast. “He was properly evaluated. He’s been to jumpmaster school, he’s a static-line jumpmaster, he’s a dive supervisor, he’s a free-fall jumpmaster; he became a badge of honor.”
This “badge of honor” has created a rite of passage in which all active-duty and retired PJs participate. The whereabouts of Charlie the PJ are a manhunt priority for every respectable PJ. Whether it’s on a combat-zone deployment or tagging along for a reunion, Charlie the PJ has been there and done that.
In order to enforce safe and ethical practices when handling Charlie the PJ, the Air Force pararescue community established a list of 11 rules. This list can be found within a scroll clenched between Charlie’s two hands. Any infractions provoke a curse upon the violator’s unfortunate soul.
The rules are as follows:
The tradition of acquiring, stealing, and taking team photos with Charlie the PJ has shaped generations of Air Force pararescuemen — the wooden icon even has its own Instagram page.
“If anybody that isn’t a PJ puts hands on Charlie, it’s like the record screeches, and everybody stops, because you’re not even allowed to hold Charlie if you’re not a PJ,” Love said. “That’s our mascot. If there’s going to be a big gathering of PJs, Charlie is expected to attend if your team is going, but that opens him up to shenanigans.”
Although it started as a team joke, Charlie the PJ is now an indispensable part of the pararescue community’s warrior culture.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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