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Chuck Yeager honored with memorial service, visit by Pence

Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a memorial service Friday for the late Gen. Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, in Charleston. The service was the first public event for the vice president since last week’s siege of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists. (Photo Provided)

CHARLESTON — Chuck Yeager, the World War II ace fighter pilot who earned international fame for being the first person to break the sound barrier, was honored Friday with a memorial service attended by Vice President Mike Pence in Charleston.

Yeager, a West Virginia native, died on Dec. 7, 2020.

Yeager’s memorial service took place on a rainy Friday at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center. The event included flybys of military aircraft and video eulogies from friends, astronauts, celebrities and fellow Air Force officers.

Members of the 88th Air Base Wing from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio were on hand to post the colors while the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band and the classical crossover group Veritas provided hymns and inspirational songs.

The event was open to the public, but security was tightened due to the vice president’s attendance more than a week after an attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob as Pence was presiding over a joint session of Congress to count electoral college ballots.

In this Sept. 4, 1985, photo, Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier in 1947, poses at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in front of the rocket-powered Bell X-IE plane that he flew. Yeager died Dec. 7, 2020, at age 97. (AP Photo)

Speaking Friday, Pence praised Yeager’s spirit, tenacity and his heroism in combat and in aviation history.

“Chuck Yeager lived a great American life,” Pence said. “He raised his family, he served his country in uniform for more than 30 years and he pushed the boundaries of what we understood was possible in his time.”

Yeager, a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force, died Dec. 7 at the age of 97. He joined the U.S. Army in 1941 and was assigned to the Army Air Corps.

Piloting a P-51 Mustang, Yeager shot down more than 11 German airplanes, including shooting down five airplanes in one day and earning Yeager ace status. Despite being shot down once, he quickly returned to combat.

“If that was all that he had accomplished, Chuck Yeager would be remembered as a great American hero of aviation,” Pence said. “But he was just 22 years of age and he was just getting started.”

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, right, presents Victoria Yeager, the wife of the late Air Force Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, the state flag during a memorial service for him Friday in Charleston. (Photo Provided)

After World War II, Yeager became a test pilot. He became the first man to break the sound barrier in 1947, piloting his Bell X-1 — named Glamorous Glennis for his wife — above Mach 1. He accomplished this after breaking two ribs from falling off a horse and having to use the end of a broom handle to close the cockpit door.

Yeager’s flight and cocky persona was immortalized in the Tom Wolfe novel and later a motion picture “The Right Stuff.”

“All told over 30 years of service, Chuck Yeager flew more than 350 military planes a total of more than 10,000 hours,” Pence said. “Chuck Yeager inspired generations of American pilots. Gen. Yeager was also an inspiration to our astronauts and the breakthroughs that he achieved as a test pilot made our space program possible.”

Two Apollo program astronauts sent messages for Friday’s memorial service. Apollo 8 commander Frank Boreman, the commander of the first mission to successfully orbit the moon, paving the way for Apollo 11, and Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charles Duke, who said Yeager was a trailblazer who made what the astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs do possible.

Yeager trained many of the first astronauts as commandant of the Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Vice President Mike Pence arrives at Yeager Airport in Charleston Friday for a memorial service for Gen. Chuck Yeager. He was greeted by Gov. Jim Justice, Brig. Gen. William E. Crane, Command Sgt. Maj. Harold K. Williams, retired Brig. Gen. Charles Moss Duke Jr. and his wife Dottie. (Photo Provided)

“Not only was (Yeager) a great pilot, but also, he was a great commander,” Boreman wrote. “He possessed moral courage and was brutally honest. He will be missed.”

“I soon discovered he was a great boss, a great mentor, a great encourager of all of the students, and he certainly emulated the best the Air Force had to offer,” Duke said in a video message. “He was so impressive in his ability to keep you motivated … Chuck, thank you for all you did for my career and Godspeed.”

Victoria Yeager, the widow of Chuck Yeager, recounted stories from their life together over the last nearly 18 years since they were married in 2003. She said she never knew one could be so happy in marriage, but their love was strong.

“He was a great teacher, very much the encourager … he was kind and generous. I’m very lucky,” Victoria said. “Don’t any of you ever forget. Don’t let your children forget, your grandchildren, your great grandchildren on down the line who this man is, who he was, and all that he has done.”

Gov. Jim Justice presented a West Virginia flag to Victoria, telling her the state will never forget Gen. Yeager.

“Victoria, from all of West Virginia and all this nation, we will never ever forget,” Justice said. “God bless you and God bless this great man in every way.”

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito were unable to attend Friday’s memorial service, but both issued statements prior to the service paying tribute to Yeager’s life and public service.

“The legacy Chuck leaves is such an important part of our heritage as West Virginians,” Manchin said. “Our little state has mined the coal that forged the steel that built the tanks and ships that keep our country the strongest in the world. It is an honor to remember Chuck as part of our military service heritage and our way of life that sinks deep into the roots of West Virginia’s rich culture. I encourage all Americans to learn what they can about this legendary West Virginian.”

“Today is a sad day because we sure are missing our fellow West Virginian, Gen. Chuck Yeager,” Capito said in a video statement. “He was an incredible aviator, a great American hero, and so patriotic … He was always a West Virginian and we sure are proud of him and we sure miss him. Godspeed to him.”

Friday’s memorial service for Yeager marked Pence’s first official public event since the Jan. 6 pro-Trump mob attack at the U.S. Capitol. Over the last several days, Pence met with the federal coronavirus task force, visited with National Guard troops stationed at the U.S. Capitol and attended a security briefing for next week’s inauguration ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Yeager is an example to all Americans that if a boy from Lincoln County can go on to become an American hero, anyone can be an American hero, Pence said.

“Chuck Yeager was a great man who dedicated his life to the service of this country,” Pence said. “Heroes give us hope; hope for the day and hope for tomorrow. America will cherish always the memory and the service and the example of Gen. Chuck Yeager. And America will never fail to produce those who follow in his footsteps.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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