Remembering a red, white, blue American

Published 9:33 am Thursday, May 30, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


Sometimes writers sit before our typewriters intending to tell a story about a specific person, event, or place, but ideas about a different topic squeeze out the original idea. As I wrote this column just before Memorial Day and completely rewrote it that morning, my mind travelled back to the specific veteran Tom and I most celebrate this year. How did a young, movie-star handsome, Italian-American kid, who studied and partied in college and in pilot training, jump-start his career into a supremely successful career? Pull up a chair, and I’ll tell you.

The late Lt. Gen. Eugene D. Santarelli, USAF (Ret.) | Submitted photo

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All of Tom’s pilot training classmates had scattered to the four corners of the earth to new bases after their graduation at Reese Air Force Base. By the way, their first flying assignments were earned according to their final ranking in Class 69-06. The top student normally received first choice of aircraft. However, NASA had sent Dr. Story Musgrave, about whom I have previously written, to pilot training to fulfill an important requirement to become a pilot astronaut. He easily ranked #1 in the class. So, the number two in their class received the coveted first choice from a list of aircraft sent by the USAF Military Personnel Center at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, Texas.

Numerous of the graduates believed their list reflected some of the juvenile behavior of a few Class 69-06 students for which the entire class had become infamously known. Their list of aircraft had not included a single, highly desired front-seat fighter. I don’t know who graduated number two, but Chuck Emery, the husband of my Brownie Scout co-leader, must have been in the top four, because he chose a back-seat assignment in one of the four F-4 Phantoms on the list. From information published in the 69-06 yearbook, “The Ha-Ha,” not many of the graduates were too pleased at their choices. Imagine working and flying in West Texas heat, plus studying hard all year to score one of the top slots, only to end up in the back seat of an F-4. It must have felt unfathomable.

The fastest, but most treacherous, path to the front seat was also beyond hard on families. At that time any USAF pilot, who went to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War as a back-seater in the F-4, and whose goal it was to pilot the front seat, had to volunteer for a second tour … in Southeast Asia. If he was accepted, he had to satisfactorily complete his back seat tour of duty. Next, he had to come back to the States for further training, specifically in flying the front seat of an F-4. Only upon satisfactory completion would he be given a front seat and sent back to the Vietnam War. Our Air Force friend, (the late) Lieutenant General Santarelli, did exactly that as a young whippersnapper lieutenant. Men who wanted, and those who still want, to be fighter pilots possess a disciplined and constant drive. The front seat, commanding your own aircraft, is usually the fire that drives them. Serving two tours in Vietnam to get into a front-seat certainly didn’t hurt Gene Santarellli’s 32-year career. He was one of the finest men we personally knew during Tom’s 30-year military career.

“Gen’rul Gene”, as I always called him, and his wife Kay, a doppelganger for Jamie Lee Curtis, quickly became our “besties” in Germany and again in Hawaii. Several years after they retired to Tucson, Arizona, they visited us in Atmore while he worked as a consultant at Hurlburt/Eglin. Unfortunately for anyone who knew Gene, he died last September of pneumonia after fighting lung and brain cancer for several years. In Southeast Asia, he flew on and off runways, which were surrounded by ever-encroaching bamboo and other fast growing tropical plants. God only knows what pesticides the military used back then to continually kill all tropical growth near the runways and likely the hooches, as their quarters were known on bases in that part of the world. For two years he also made low passes over jungles that other aircraft had sprayed with pesticides to make it easier for “the Good Guys” to see the Viet Cong.

In lieu of flowers for his Celebration of Life Catholic Mass, Kay invited friends and family to donate to the Lt. General Eugene D. Santarelli Scholarship at his alma mater, Notre Dame University. It was our honor to write our check. This Memorial Day Tom and I celebrated Gen’rul Gene’s life and his service to our nation. Kay and Gene were teammates in his Air Force career. She played hostess with grace and humor. She did the tough things senior officers were then expected to do. They were friends, who still loved each other. Kay was Gene’s rock during his prolonged battle against cancer, a time which often affords long-married couples an opportunity to re-vitalize their marriage. After decades, it’s easy to unconsciously take each other for granted. Of course, that newly discovered tenderness, that sweetness makes the loss even harder to bear when one partner has “Flown west,” as some pilots refer to a fellow aviator’s passing.

If you’re still thinking about Memorial Day, spare a thought for those faceless folks who fought for us and America. Please remember our Gold Star Families.

Kay still grieves her loss, of course. For now, it is a solitary path. If you believe in prayer, please whisper one for our friend Kay and another for eternal peace of her sweet husband’s soul.