Just three days before the United States celebrates the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville will honor Oregon's Gen. Merrill Anthony "Tony" McPeak with an event saluting his service as both an F-100 fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
The private event will be held at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, where Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum Curator Terry Juran will unveil a new exhibit combining uniforms and personal items donated to the museum by Gen. McPeak and as well as the supersonic F-100 Super Sabre. Several local elected officials and congressional representatives are expected to be in attendance. The following day the museum will host a meet-and-greet with Gen. McPeak at 10 a.m. in the Aviation Building before he gives a keynote speech in the museum theater at 11 a.m.
McPeak said that as he and his wife Elynor get older they've decided to donate his personal items in an effort to downsize his military memorabilia without merely throwing stuff away. He was touched when Juran decided to use those items to create a new exhibit at the Evergreen Museum.
"I feel very honored the museum has created this exhibit, and they now have an airplane with my name on the side of it, a combat aircraft I flew in Vietnam," McPeak told The Review. "The other stuff, the memorabilia, I'm just delighted and honored they've taken."
Gen. McPeak is a native of Grants Pass, and currently resides in Lake Oswego where his wife served as a two-term city councilor. He began his career with the USAF as a commissioned officer with reserve officers training corps program at San Diego State University where he earned a degree in economics in 1957.
"When you look at everything he has accomplished and done within the Air Force and after the Air Force, he's just an absolutely incredible person. If there was anyone who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, he is an example of that," Juran said.
After completing pilot training, McPeak completed a host of assignments including serving as an instructor pilot and flying with the USAF's acrobatic flying team the Thunderbirds before being assigned as an F-100 pilot with the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing at Phu Cat Air Base in South Vietnam. He was part of a group of high-speed forward air controllers known as "Misty FACs" tasked with stopping vehicular supply on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a logistical supply chain feeding North Vietnamese troops throughout the Vietnam War. He flew a total 269 combat missions — nearly 100 of which were Misty missions — while in Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star for extraordinary valor in combat.
After returning to the United States and graduating from the National War College and George Washington University in 1974, McPeak served in a number of high level roles at Air Force bases across the U.S. and abroad until in 1990 he was appointed Air Force Chief of Staff by then-President George H.W. Bush at the beginning of Operation Desert Shield.
During his tenure as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, McPeak made sweeping changes to the Air Force's internal structure and organization aimed at improving operations efficiency and combat readiness. He also advised President Bill Clinton as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1992 until his retirement from the Air Force in 1994.
"Most of the stuff I did in the Air Force I really enjoyed personally. I was a career fighter pilot, and I enjoyed every second I spent in a fighter aircraft, but that was just personal enjoyment," McPeak said. "As far as helping build the organization, nothing was more important than the reorganization that I was a part of."
As a 31-year veteran of the USAF himself, Juran believes Gen. McPeak's contributions to the United States' armed forces are immeasurable.
"High combat awards and great humility," Juran said. "I felt that since we're going to have the 70th anniversary of the Air Force coming up, we need to honor him and what he gave to this country as an Oregonian."
After his retirement from the Air Force, McPeak served on several boards of directors for major corporations such as Trans World Airlines and Tektronix in Beaverton. As a political activist, he served as chairman for the Bob Dole campaign for president in 1996 and for George W. Bush in 2000. Following the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq in 2003, McPeak switched sides and threw his support for the democrats in 2004 supporting both Dean Heller and John Kerry. In 2008, he went out on the stump for Barack Obama in both Iowa and Oregon.
While some find Gen. McPeak's public comments on issues hot button issues a bit controversial, it's undeniable the man isn't afraid to speak his mind. It's a trait that many Oregonians, as vehement supporters of the first amendment, find endearing.
He has written a trilogy of books outlining his experience from his days a fighter pilot to his counseling of President Bush and Clinton. Most recently, Gen. McPeak was heavily involved — as both an interviewee and special adviser — in the upcoming work from famed documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick titled "The Vietnam War." He describes that experience nothing short of "tremendous."
"It's a monumental work of art, it's a monumental work of history," Gen. McPeak said. "I think I played a significant role in what will be the video history that will survive. It has a timeless quality to it."
The 18-hour series is billed as the epic telling of one of the most consequential, divisive and controversial events in American history. It's set to premiere on Sunday, Sept. 17 Public Broadcasting Services nationwide.