Bob Russell was a very private, devout pilot who used the call sign “Deacon” when he flew 54 combat missions in F-86 Sabre jets during the Korean War. He also had a sense of humor and deep love for his West Virginia hometown.
As his older brother Charles tells the story, the future general and a fellow fighter pilot were flying side-by-side from South Carolina to Washington, D.C., in the 1950s when they received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to pass over Mill Creek, W.VA., at 2,000 feet. Russell didn’t mention it was in a mountain valley at 1,900 feet above sea level.
“He buzzed the town twice and did a spiral and a roll-over,” his 89-year-old brother said. “The cows wouldn’t milk and the chickens stopped laying eggs. … You can imagine the discussions at the post office.”
Russell, 84, died while in in hospice care at his winter home in Summerfield, near The Villages. His summer home remained the house where he was born and wanted to be the town’s doctor.
He graduated from Tygarts Valley High School in 1947 where he was a senior class president and basketball team captain. He enrolled at West Virginia University, becoming a member of Mountain ranking men’s honorary, Fi Batar Capper, Kappa Alpha and served as the 1949/50 WVU Mountaineer. He received a Bachelor of Arts from WVU in premedical sciences in 1951 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant through the Air Force ROTC program. He graduated from Squadron Officer School in 1958, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in 1963 and the Air War College in 1972. General Russell graduated from pilot training in Pinecastle (later McCoy) Air Force Base, Fla., in October 1952 followed by combat training in F-86 Sabre jets at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. In March 1953, he was assigned to the 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing in Korea piloting F-86s. In December 1953, he went to England Air Force Base, La., where he served as flight commander and operations officer flying F-86, F-84F and F-100 fighters during an eight-year tour of duty.
General Russell went to Thailand in 1965 as chief of wing training operations for the 6234th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base and flew the F-105 Thunderchief. In May 1966, he became chief of combat operations for the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat. From August 1966 to 1969, he was chief of Tactical Air Requirements at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. He commanded the 356th Tactical Fighter Squadron flying A-7D’s at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, S.C., from 1969 to 1971. In 1974, he returned to Korat as commander of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing participating in the recovery of the USS Mayaguez. He was at HQ Pacific Air Forces from 1975 to 1977 and then served as inspector general for Tactical Air Command from 1977 to 1979 before serving at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., with the Readiness Command in his final position before retiring.
In retirement John moved to Abilene, Texas, where he lived for several years. In 1995, he correlated a historical reflection about his hometown called “Mill Creek Memories.” At John’s behest, his family also gave land to the town for Hamill Park. His book signing and park dedication were scheduled the same day in May 1995.
John returned to his home town of Mill Creek in 1996 where he became active in helping to better the area. Along with his sister, Nancy Turner (now deceased), and brother, Charles, he donated the land for the new Tygart Valley Community Library and chaired a successful fundraiser ($350,000) to finance the building. He was a trustee and elder of the Mill Creek Presbyterian Church where he taught a Bible study class. He served as president of Valley Health Care Inc. and was an emeritus member of the board of directors. As president of the TVHS class of 1947, upon his return to Mill Creek, he organized class reunions every five years. He always looked forward to this celebration.
Surviving are his wife, Elaine Zickefoose Russell; daughters and sons-in-law: Anne Russell Bailey and John Bailey, Susan Russell Gornto and Harry Clifton Gornto IV; son, John Hamill Russell; brother, Charles W Russell; grandchildren, Rebecca and Harry Clifton Gornto V, Alexandra and Zachery Bailey; niece, Margaret “Peggy” Turner, PhD.; and nephews, John Turner and Joel Russell.
A memorial service was conducted at the Mill Creek Presbyterian Church on Saturday, Sept. 21, by the Rev. Dr. Basil A. Hensley and Pastor Tim Glaser, and interment of Mr. Russell’s cremains followed in Beverly Cemetery at Beverly, where full military honors will be accorded by members of the U.S. Air Force.