Lt. Col. Eugene Altman Merrell, USAF (Retired)
Eugene A. Merrell, known to all as Gene, was born in Jonesboro, AR, on July 21, 1922 to Eltha Hardy Merrell and Louis Herndon Merrell. After Gene's birth, the family returned to Ft. Stanton, NM where they remained until the post closed in 1953. He fondly considered himself to be a native of New Mexico. His primary education took place in the post’s two-room schoolhouse, and he graduated from Capitan High School in 1939. He attended New Mexico A&M College, and then Arizona State Teachers College in Tempe, until WWII intervened. He applied for Aviation Cadet Training in 1942, and in April, 1943 was assigned to Wichita Falls, TX for basic training. This was followed by flight training postings at Texas A&M in College Station, San Antonio, and Corsicana. He was then sent to Enid, OK and was presented with his wings and 2nd Lieutenant bars in Frederick, OK, on June 27, 1944. After completing officers administrative school in San Antonio, he was assigned to the training command at Hondo Army Airfield, followed by San Marcus Army Airfield, TX, Luke Field in Phoenix, AZ, and Wright Field in Dayton, OH. He was posted to the 13th AF Headquarters at McKinley Field near Manila, Philippines, in April 1946.
He met Colleen Marguerite Ross while stationed at Enid. They were married in Stillwater, OK in 1945. Finding time to be together proved to be difficult during their courtship and early marriage. These lengthy separations prompted Gene to request a release from service in 1947. Gene and Colleen returned to school at Oklahoma A&M in Stillwater, receiving their degrees in 1948.
After his release from service, he remained in the Reserves. In 1953, with the Korean War ongoing, the Air Force asked for volunteers to return to active duty. He resumed his Air Force career in April. After a refresher course at Graham Airbase, FL, he became an adjutant and instructor pilot in the 7th Bomb Wing at Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, TX. In early 1955, he was sent to Korea, to join the 606th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron at Airfield K-18, a remote radar site just below the 38th parallel. He was eventually given a position as Assistant Group Personnel Officer and pilot for the group commander at K-55 (now OSAN Air Base), a large base just south of Seoul. From Korea, he transferred to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where he was the Assistant Command Adjutant and Base Personnel Services Officer.
Gene’s next assignment, in 1958, was to Sandia Base, NM, the home of Headquarters Field Command Defense Atomic Support Agency. While his position as Chief of the Airmen’s Branch with the Air Force Personnel Division of Headquarters Field Command demanded much of his time, he was also a favored pilot for VIPs and commanding generals, and he was witness to a number of events during the testing of nuclear weapons and the initial phases of the space program.
He transferred to Sewart Air Force Base, TN in 1962, joining the 772nd Troop Carrier Squadron and becoming a command pilot on the C-130 Hercules. That year, his crew was on call in Panama during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and also transported troops and equipment into Jackson, MS to provide support for desegregation when James Meredith became the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi. In 1963, his crew was standing by in Montgomery, AL when Gov. George Wallace tried to impede integration at the University of Alabama. He became the Mobility Officer for the 463rd Troop Carrier Wing and was called upon to develop contingency and mobility plans for the wing—plans that were tested when the wing moved to Langley Air Force Base, VA in 1963. His plans became the models for all troop carrier wings in the 9th Air Force. At Langley, he was frequently called upon to work in Combat Airlift Support Units or act as an evaluator in major multi-force exercises and war games.
In 1965, he received orders for Vietnam. He served in a special projects branch of the 2nd Air Division and was later assigned to the office of the Deputy Commander for Operations. He was the Top Secret Control Officer, reviewing nearly every message pertaining to the air war in Vietnam. He was reassigned to the Airlift Branch of the Plans and Requirements Division. There he became the 7th Air Force project manager of the herbicide program and utilization of six CH-3 helicopters. He was also an aircraft commander, carrying cargo and personnel throughout the region.
He was promoted to Lt. Colonel in 1966 and selected to lead the AFROTC detachment, as Professor of Aerospace Studies, at Indiana University. This was a time of unrest at campuses across the nation, engendering widespread disrespect for those in uniform. To improve relations with civilian employees and faculty, he implemented a program offering motivational flights, whereby passengers could learn what the Air Force was all about.
In 1968, he transferred to Andrews AFB, near Washington, D.C., where he joined a new squadron of hand-picked pilots to provide transport for high-ranking military, civilians, and foreign dignitaries. He carried a government disaster relief team to Biloxi, MS, becoming the first airplane to land after Hurricane Camille in 1969. When a strike by the nation’s postal workers threatened, he developed a well-regarded plan to handle the transport of mail. After an Inspector General’s report noted that most of the base’s major plans were outdated, including those for evacuating key government officials in the event of an extreme national emergency, he was assigned as Chief, Plans Division. Upon learning that there was no base plan for supporting Air Force One, he overcame security and sensitivity issues to put a plan into the record. He later became heavily involved in planning the reunification and support of returning prisoners of war from Southeast Asia.
Gene’s final assignment was to Kincheloe AFB in Michigan as Chief, Base Operations and Training Division.
In his service with the United States Air Force, Lt. Col. Merrell graduated from the Air War College and was awarded the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal (2), Air Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal (2), and the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm.
In June, 1978, Gene retired to Bloomington, IN, where he lived until health issues dictated a move to the Indianapolis area in 2021. He was a lifelong learner, always making an effort to stay abreast of current affairs and technology and was often on his computer late into the night. He was an avid golfer who frequented the IU course with his golfing buddies until outliving those special friends. He maintained a relationship with the ROTC detachment at IU for many years and was formerly on the commission that recommended Indiana’s candidates for appointment to the nation’s military academies. He enjoyed the company of other veterans and was a longtime member of the Retired Officers Association, Air Force Association, and American Legion. He celebrated his 100th birthday in 2022.
He was predeceased by his wife Colleen, brother William H. Merrell of Capitan, NM, and longtime partner Sarajane Costas of Bloomington. He is survived by his daughter Linda M. Reynolds of Florida and son Douglas K. Merrell of Greenwood, IN, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Gene was a man of intelligence, integrity, and honor. He will be deeply missed by his beloved family, whom he often regaled with stories of his youthful adventures in New Mexico and his exploits as a pilot. The family will hold a private sendoff at a later date, and will raise a glass of Scotch in tribute to a life well-lived.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation in Gene’s memory to the Gary Sinese Foundation, or other charity committed to serving our nation’s veterans.
Postal: Gary Sinese Foundation, PO Box 40726, Nashville, TN 37204