“One Helluva Career”: Testing Planes And Rescuing A POW In The Air Force

Eugene P. Deatrick Jr.


Gene Deatrick grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, and in Washington, D.C. His parents were both professors at West Virginia University, and at the time, there was a prohibition against two Professors in the same family teaching at the same university in West Virginia, so his father took a job in the D.C. area. After high school, Gene entered the West Virginia University and enlisted in the Air Corps Reserve for a year before being accepted into West Point. In the summer of 1943, he entered the United States Military Academy, and became an Air Cadet during his yearling year. While at the Academy, he became friends with Jimmy Doolittle’s son, and remained lifelong friends with the family, including the General, who became a mentor. When the war ended in 1945, he remembers the Cadets being happy, but with a tinge of disappointment that they had missed the war. A little over a year after he graduated, the Army Air Corps transitioned to the United States Air Force, and although he was grateful for the recognition of being a separate branch of the military, he remembers having to buy all new uniforms. He volunteered for assignment to bombers and trained on several varieties, including the B-25, B-29, and B-17. After an assignment to the 307th Bomb Wing at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands with the 10th Air Rescue Squadron in Adak. For the majority of his career, he served as a test pilot, stationed variously at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, and Edwards Air Force Base in California. Some of the test missions he flew included flying nuclear test missions in the B-47 and B-52 over Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls. After serving as the executive officer to General Howell Estes (USMA 36), he volunteered for service in Vietnam and assumed command of the 1st Air Commando Squadron (ACS) at Pleiku, flying the A1 Skyraider. While he was in command, one of his pilots, Bernie Fisher, became the first Air Force Officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing a downed pilot from an enemy held airfield. Months later, Deatrick identified an escaped POW, Navy Lieutenant Dieter Dengler on the ground, and called for rescue helicopters to come pick him up. Following service in Vietnam, Deatrick was assigned as Commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base. In 1972, he became the Director of Test, Air Force Systems Command at Andrews Air Force Base until he retired in 1974. In this interview, he talks about his childhood, his experiences at West Point, and his service in the Air Force. He describes flying nuclear test missions, and sinking a PBY in the Pacific. He discusses several influential people he knew and worked with, including the Doolittles, Pancho Barnes, and Norwegian explorer Bernt Balchen. He recalls his service in Vietnam and several of the missions he flew, including being shot down. Finally, he reflects on what his service means to him.


conflicts World War II Vietnam War
topics Air Force War in the Air P.O.W.s Military Techniques Leadership Camaraderie West Point History
interviewer David Siry
date 16 July 2019


name Eugene P. Deatrick Jr.
institution USMA
graduation year 1946
service Aviation / U.S. Air Force
unit 1st Air Commando Squadron
specialty Test Pilot, Rescuing an Escaped POW
service dates 1946 1974