By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – A disassembled F-105 Thunderchief rolled into town on Monday on a pair of 18-wheelers and a small trailer, but the fighter plane was in pretty good shape, all things considered.
“The one I flew in Vietnam was in far more pieces than this one,” said Tupelo resident Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, who was held captive for eight and a half years after his F-105 crashed in North Vietnam.
Harris and West Point resident Gene Smith, a former F-105 pilot and POW, were among those who gathered at Transport Trailer to watch the plane be unloaded at its temporary Tupelo home.
Members of the Haralson County Veterans Association in Georgia supervised the plane’s trip from Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas.
“It’s a 20-hour trip one way,” said Tim Gore, a member of the association. “It’s right at 900 miles, or a little more.”
Sammy Robinson, president of the association, said the group had experience with such moves after collecting two planes for their town. Robinson knows a POW who was imprisoned with Harris and Smith.
“That’s how we got together,” he said. “They asked for our help, and we’re glad to do it.”
“You’ve been a godsend to us,” Harris said.
“It all goes together,” Robinson said. “A veteran is a veteran is a veteran.”
There’s work to do before the plane can be installed at Veterans Park.
“We don’t have a date yet,” said Don Lewis, director of Tupelo Parks and Recreation. “That depends on the repairs and building a base for it at the park.”
A group known as the Jet Volunteers has been working for more than three years to make the Veterans Park display a reality. About half of the $60,000 projected cost has been raised.
“We’ll have fundraisers coming up,” Lewis said.
Those who want to donate to the Veterans Park Memorial Jet Special Project may do so anytime by visiting www.createfoundation.com.
Smith said seeing the plane in person reminded him of how big it was, especially compared to the F-101s and F-102s he’d flown.
“It’s 58,000 pounds in combat configuration,” he said. “Of course, it doesn’t weigh that now.”
The F-105, which had been stripped of its engine and other reusable materials, arrived with a camouflaged paint job that Smith remembered well.
“Mine looked just like this one,” he said.
“They’re going to paint it as it is,” Harris added, “only they’re going to totally strip it and repaint it. It’s going to look absolutely wonderful.”