Irwin reflects on Air Force career

Lt. Col. Gerald Lee Irwin official USAF photograph taken by USAF A1C Mitch L. Kezar in 1972, Maxwell AFB, Alabama during Vietnam War era. (Contributed)

Lt. Col. Gerald Lee Irwin official USAF photograph taken by USAF A1C Mitch L. Kezar in 1972, Maxwell AFB, Alabama during Vietnam War era. (Contributed)

By PHOEBE DONALD ROBINSON / Community Columnist

Col. Gerald “Jerry” Lee Irwin was a career Air Force pilot whose memories of service to our nation include some of the most well-known events of the Vietnam War era.

A graduate of Fishbourne Military School and West Point, he completed flight training in 1957 and married May Rowan Cresswell, daughter of Gen. Leonard B. Cresswell USMC who received the Navy Cross in WWII.

During his career, Irwin flew over 7,000 hours in B-25, T-29, C-130, C-131 and QU-22 aircrafts. On Jan. 3, 1960, he flew the last active duty B-25 bomber to be retired.

He served in Germany as Command Post Officer in 36th TAW and was deployed to Asia in 1970 with 56 Special Ops Wing.

He flew 60 QU-22 reconnaissance missions “over the trail” (Ho Chi Minh, Thailand).

On Christmas Day, 1974, Irwin took his wife and five children to live in Asia, where he was assigned to 374 Tactical Airlift Wing, Clark AB, Philippines.

He directed airlift operations on the runway at Phnon Penh, Cambodia, before its fall on April 17, 1975.

The airlift to bring supplies was carried out under enemy fire just before the Khmer Rouge took over and began the “Killing Fields.”

Irwin served as Operations Officer, 776th TAS and directed missions to evacuate Saigon before it fell April 30, 1975. He commanded the 21st TAS during 1976-1977.

During Operation Baby Lift, his wife and children would sit on mattresses in a hanger holding and comforting orphan babies in the Philippines.

Irwin’s crews participated in the evacuation of 3,300 children from Vietnam.

During the Mayaguez incident May 12-15, 1975, Irwin was involved in directing the rescue of the Marines by flying in C-130s and dropping the BLU-62 “daisy cutter” 15,000 pound on enemy positions.

With great secrecy, Irwin was a member of a select crew that flew American, Viet Cong, North and South Vietnamese generals from Saigon to Hanoi for peace negotiations in February 1975.

Additionally in 1976, Irwin provided and directed airlift to support the rescue mission of Belgian Congo missionaries by Belgium Special Forces and French Foreign Legion.

During the same period, he directed the transport of the deceased bodies back from the Jim Jones massacre.

Col. Irvin’s last command was Chief of Operational Support Airlift Division, Military Aircraft Command, Scott AFB, Illinois, where he retired in October 1979.

His decorations include The Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with “V” devise, Meritorious Service Military Medal, two Air Medals and six other medals/ribbons.

Irwin states his most proud accomplishment is that he picked the right woman to marry 57 years ago, his beloved May. Jerry and May Irwin live is Calera.

About Phoebe Donald Robinson

I am President of Donald Real Estate and Ins. Co., Inc., a company that my grandfather , Charles J. Donald, founded in 1925. I am the third generation owner of the business. I am also the Columbiana Columnist for the Shelby County Reporter.

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