As I watched the Atlanta Braves’ pre-game Memorial Day tribute with our son this week, I wanted him to understand the meaning of this holiday, and I found myself thinking about a few brave men from my hometown of Florence, AL.
I remembered Corporal Andrew Chris, who was just a year behind me in high school, who was killed in action 15 years ago, in June 2003, in Baghdad. He was just 25 years old. Although I know many people that have served in the military, Andrew is the only person that I know who made the ultimate sacrifice. Deceased or still living, all of our veterans deserve our recognition each and every day.
This week, I’d like to tell you about a couple of distinguished aviators from Florence, both of which were/are friends of our family.
Mighty by sacrifice
Growing up, I knew Bill Tune from church, where we’d see him and his wife, Fran, each Sunday. My mom was close friends with his daughter throughout her life, and the Tunes were two of the nicest people you’d ever meet. I don’t think I ever saw them without a smile on their face.
I noticed that Mr. Tune walked with a cane (I just assumed due to old age), but mom told me once that it was because he’d been a POW in World War II. It was only recently, however, when I read the book, Mighty by Sacrifice, written by father and son veterans themselves, that I learned the harrowing story behind Mr. Tune’s service and injury.
Mr. Tune was a B-17 bomber pilot, and was flying with a squadron of bombers over Czechoslovakia on August 29, 1944, when the entire squadron was shot down during what should have been an easy mission. Most of the airmen were captured as POWs, dozens were killed, and only a few managed to survive and escape capture. When forced to parachute out of his crippled bomber, Mr. Tune was severely injured when he hit one of the bomber’s gun turrets, and subsequently spent years as a POW.
I regret not ever having the opportunity to speak with Mr. Tune about his time in Europe, but I had no idea about the details of his story.
Faster than a speeding bullet
No, Superman is not from Florence, but Ed Yeilding is a member of a very select fraternity of aviators that have flown a plane faster than a bullet. Ed and my mom were in the same class all the way through high school and, like Mr. Tune, I’d hear stories about him from her over the years. I’ve been interested in flying for as long as I can remember, and Ed’s career as a pilot always fascinated me.
Ed was selected to fly the SR-71 Blackbird – the fastest jet-propelled aircraft to ever fly. The Blackbird, and the missions it flew, was critical to the US intelligence effort during the Cold War. For years after he retired, Ed would speak to civic organizations around town, but so much about the plane was still classified at that time. Since then, I’ve had the chance to speak to him on a number of occasions, and have heard stories about his missions across the globe.
Perhaps his crowning achievement, however, came on March 6, 1990. Among that group of arguably the Air Force’s most elite pilots, Ed, and his long-time navigator, J.T. Vida, were chosen for the final flight of the SR-71. High operating costs, and the advent of satellite technology, had factored into the government’s decision to retire the plane from service.
On this final flight, the Blackbird was taking aim at a number of speed records, while en route to permanent display at what is now the Smithsonian Institute’s Udvar-Hazy Museum at Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington, DC. Most impressive of the records broken that day was the coast-to-coast flight time of just one hour and eight minutes. At an average speed of 2,112 mph, that comes out to a mile every 2 seconds (or just a shade under 2 seconds actually). Think about that for a minute.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that mom said Ed used to drive her to school and would never, ever, exceed the speed limit!
What stands out to me about both of these men is their kindness and humility. To this day, Ed will use the term “we” when talking about his accomplishments. And this is usually only after I ask him question after question about flying the SR-71! While I never had the opportunities to speak with Mr. Tune the way I have with Ed, I know he would have also been quick to credit others, while deflecting attention from himself.
I’d like to thank Andrew Chris, Bill Tune, and Ed Yeilding, as well as all other veterans, living or deceased, for their service to our country, and for putting others ahead of themselves. It is because of your actions that I am able to live in such a remarkable country.