NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — It endured a dozen Las Vegas summers and as many cold, dry winters. One hundred and fifty-plus months of gusty desert wind and never-ending desert dust. It had a purpose of the highest order, but for almost 13 years, it sat unnoticed in a remote area of base property.
Its wait is finally over. The one-twelfth-scale F-105 “Thunderchief” replica, along with its cherished memorial plaque, was officially dedicated Nov. 15 in its new location in front of the Thunderbirds hangar. Hundreds of active and former team members attended the ceremony, which honored one of their fallen comrades.
The display bears the name of Capt. Gene Devlin, a Thunderbirds pilot who lost his life in 1964, when his F-105 exploded in the skies over Hamilton AFB, Calif. About 10 years later, the red, white and blue Thunderchief model was placed on a matching, diagonal 17-foot post at Nellis’ front gate.
The 600-pound structure was removed in 1999 to accommodate the realigning of base access roads. It was later replaced by a four-jet F-16 formation display, which is still mounted near the base visitors’ center. Meanwhile, the F-105 replica was set aside near an old bunker, and with the frequent turnover of Thunderbirds members, it was forgotten.
Then, in the summer of 2012, a strange call came from the RED HORSE civil engineer squadron. They had found an old Thunderbirds-painted model, and they didn’t know what to do with it.
Tech. Sgt. Anthony Graham, a former Thunderbirds maintenance professional, went to take a look.
“I had no idea what it was,” Graham said. “I looked at it again, and I saw Captain Devlin’s name on it…and it had the memorial on it.”
The plaque that accompanied the model and its pillar was inscribed with words familiar to Thunderbirds past and present: “In the honor of Captain Gene Devlin, who lost his life on May 9, 1964, while serving his country as a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird. This memorial is dedicated to all whose common bond is uncommon devotion to duty.”
Almost 50 years later, as a tribute to Devlin’s sacrifice, the squadron’s orientation for new members still includes mandatory memorization of those words. Graham had no idea the words had ever appeared anywhere outside the newcomers’ training booklet, until he saw them on the memorial plaque.
“It took my breath. It honestly did,” Graham said. “(I thought) why is it here? (And) how long is it going to sit here before we do something about it?”
It wasn’t long before Graham remembered that one of the country’s most prominent antique restorers did business less than 10 miles away from Nellis. Several phone calls later, Graham had an agreement from Rick Dale — star of History Channel’s “American Restoration” — to give the model jet a much-needed makeover.
The Thunderbirds Alumni Association fronted the $10,000 cost of the restoration, and the entire project was featured in an episode of the national television program in November 2012. The official dedication ceremony was put on hold for a year to accommodate the 2013 TBAA reunion, which celebrated the Thunderbirds 60th anniversary year.
Devlin’s widow, Shirley Buckley, and their three sons were the guests of honor at the ceremony. Mark Devlin, who was two years old in 1964, doesn’t remember his father at all. For him, the legacy of the F-105 model is an importance piece of his pieced-together image of his dad.
“The level of respect even the new team members have for my father and all the ones who flew before them is just so impressive,” Mark Devlin said. “I’ve always been extremely proud of my dad. This just kind of cements everything.”