Gilmer produced many Air Force heroes
Sep 06, 2009 | 3663 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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STEVE DEAN, dressed in his Air Force pilot’s flight uniform for his talk to the Gilmer Rotary Club Tuesday, holds a model of the SR-71 Blackbird, in which Col. Robert Stephens, on left in large photo, set the world’s absolute speed record that still stands.
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Accomplishments of three Air Force officers whose careers are memorialized in the Flight of the Phoenix Museum at Gilmer’s Fox Stephens Field were described for Gilmer Rotarians Tuesday by Rotarian Steve Dean, who established the museum.

He used a PowerPoint slide presentation to accompany his talk, and he discussed the Rotary Club’s role in helping with the museum’s development.

Dean said he had been inspired as a child by hearing his First Baptist Sunday School teacher, “Miss Mamie” Stephens, tell about the career of her son, Col. Robert Stephens. Then, one day in 1957, Stephens came by Henry McClelland’s math class at Gilmer High School, in which Steve was a student, for a visit with his teacher.

Dean credited Stephens as one of the inspirations for his own career as an Air Force jet pilot. He noted that the City Council agreed to change the name of Gilmer’s airport to Fox Stephens Field in recognition of this native son’s accomplishments.

It was on May 1, 1965 that Col. Stephens and his crew set a world speed and altitude record in the SR-71 Blackbird fighter plane. That record still stands, Dean pointed out. The supersonic plane was retired 20 years ago, he noted, and one of them is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Maryland unit.

For two decades, the Blackbird provided strategic reconaissance data for the U.S., according to a Lockheed brief video that Dean showed.

One picture showed Col. Stephens with the SR-71 test director, Col. Joe Cotton, at Edwards AFB, Calif., and another showed Joy Stephens, his wife, riding in the 2000 Yamboree parade as marshal.

Dean commented that Bobby Stephens loved Gilmer and always enjoyed coming back here. He introduced the Yamboree luncheon speaker many times, though he was never speaker himself, Dean said.

The Rotary Club inspected the Flight of the Phoenix Museum on April 1, 1988, when Gordon Bowers was president and James Malone introduced the day’s speaker, Col. John Caspar, NASA astronaut and space shuttle commander. A 1965 Air Force Academy graduate, Col. Caspar had been dean’s flight student, so the occasion served as a reunion for them.

A New York state native who was a Texan by adoption, the late Richard Potter, is remembered for his role as an 8th Air Force B-17 navigator flying 33 missions over Germany before he was returned t0 the U.S. in 1945.

Although he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, he missed the awards ceremony in Houston because he had already left for the University of Texas at Austin. After graduation, he moved to Gilmer to help found Gilmer Potteries Inc.

Years later, Dean learned of the missing medal from Potter’s wife, Daisy, and arranged for a presentation to be made at a Rotary Club meeting on May 26, 1998. Potter thought he and the club would be hearing a speech by Lt. Gen. Phil Ford, 8th Air force commander, and so they did. But the general also carried out his mission of presenting the medal to a surprised Potter, whose wife and two daughters had made up an effective excuse for being at the meeting.

Subsequently, Dean said, he and his wife went to the Grafton-Underwood Air Base site north of London, England, from where Potter navigated the “Screaming Eagle,” a colonel’s lead plane in Flying Fortress bombing runs. They saw a monument that designated the now-abandoned base as the place from which the first and last missions from England had been flown in WWII. A reunion was being held that day and the Deans were able to participate in it.

A Rotary connection turned up a few years ago when a Rotary exchange student from Germany was living in Gilmer, and her parents visited her. Her mother had been an exchange student in Tyler, and she came to visit the Flight of the Phoenix Museum.

When she saw that the list of Potter’s missions included one over Nuremberg, Germany on Feb. 23, 1945, she realized that was the day that her family’s home there was destroyed. She said her family had taken refuge in a bunker, but her grandparents had gone to the basement, and when they came out the house had been destroyed by the bombing raid.

Also honored in the museum is Flight Officer James Rex Lindsey of Gilmer, who was co-pilot of “Hadley’s Harem,” a B-24D Liberator bomber lost in the first air raid over the Ploesti, Romania oil refneries on Aug. 1, 1943.

Flying at a very low level, the bombers encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire and part of the nose was blown off of Lindsey’s plane. Heading for Cyprus with one engine gone, it lost a second engine and was 750 feet off the coast of Turkey when the other two engines froze and the plane crashed into the ocean. Seven crew members in the rear were able to escape, but Lindsey and the pilot, Lieut. Gilbert Hadley, were reported as killed.

In 1994, the bodies of the two men were found after one of the survivors, Leroy Newton, undertook a personal mission to find them. They were returned to the U. S. two years later and on Jan. 11, 1997, a memorial service was held in Gilmer. Dean arranged a fly-over of military planes from Barksdale Air Force Base, shreveport, when the graveside service started at Gilmer City Cemetery. Dean led a flight of four T-6’s in the “missing man” formation.

Lindsey’s grave is not far from the burial plots of Col. Stephens and Major Jimmy Kendall, veteran of a later Ploesti raid.

Dean told of visiting the Ronnie Coach museum in Istanbul, Turkey where the recovered remains of Hadley’s Harem are housed in a shed. He showed a photo of the nose section.
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