Although born in Texas, Eugene was more at home in California after his family moved to the west coast when he was young. Although well grounded, the boy usually had an eye peeled up towards the sky. Despite this tendency to get lost in his own imagination, the adventurous lad thought long and hard about actually following in his father’s footsteps to join the LAPD. At Los Angeles City College, Eugene even studied police science, but he also discovered a joy for things that fly through the air. Enrolling in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, Eugene became a private pilot. He felt most at home when he was thousands of feet in the air, looking down over the hills of southern California. His timing couldn’t have been any better, at least not for the United States, which had just found itself entrenched in the second major world war in the first half of the 20th century. His skills as a pilot were put to the test as Eugene became a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Forces, a pre-cursor to the United States Air Force.
Assigned to the Pacific Theater, Eugene proved his mettle time and again in the 394th Bomb Squadron as part of the 13th Air Force. The B-17 Flying Fortress, with a wingspan of over 104 feet, and a range of 2,000 miles, was credited with dropping more bombs than any other aircraft in the United States during the entirety of the war. Eugene dropped his fair share of them in 89 combat missions. Earning both an Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross, Eugene wasn’t immune to disasters. He was, it seemed, more like a magnet for them. He was involved in two separate airplane crashes while serving in the military. He was so well-versed in airline crashes, as a matter of fact, that he was promoted to the rank of Captain and assigned the arduous role of airplane crash investigator for the remainder of his service.
After leaving the military, and despite being involved in or responsible for investigating many airplane crashes, Eugene immediately took right back to the air. He landed a job with Pan American World Airways as a pilot. He flew long haul routes all over the world to exotic places. With the Nazi threat now neutralized, a civilization rebuilding, and America now a superpower, young Eugene seemed to have the world in his hands.
Now I’ve been told that statistically speaking, air travel is the safest mode of travel known to man. You’d have to, again statistically speaking, fly cross country every single day for something on the magnitude of a thousand years before you’d be involved in a crash. Our friend, Eugene, however, is a bit of an outlier. No more than two years into his life as a hot shot civilian pilot for a major international airline, 3rd Officer Eugene found himself “deadheading” on board a Lockheed L-049 Constellation on Pan Am Flight 121. He and the rest of the plane’s passengers and crew left Karachi on June 18th, 1947 destined for Istanbul. Several hours into the flight, Eugene ended up behind the cockpit in order to give the captain a break. During his time in command, he experienced an engine malfunction, so he shut one of the plane’s four engines down. The captain, upon returning to the cockpit, determined that the plane would move along just fine with the three remaining engines, so he continued on course to Istanbul rather than turning around to land at a local air strip.
At 10:00 pm that night, Pan Am Flight 121 hovered somewhere near Baghdad, Iraq when the plane radioed to local airfields their exact position. The engines, it seemed, were overheating, and the L-049 struggled to maintain altitude. An hour and a half later, the second engine caught fire. The captain directed Eugene to prepare the passengers and crew for a possible crash landing as he guided the aircraft towards an air strip in Syria. As screams of panic began to fill the cabin of the distressed airplane, Eugene did his best to calm everyone. He’d been through this situation a time or two, of course. He instructed a stewardess to remain seated as she tried to move around the airplane, an order that would save her life.
Just before 3:30 am on June 19th, somewhere near the Euphrates river in the deserts of Syria, one of Pan Am Flight 121’s engines fell from its harness, leaking fuel and stoking a massive fire on the wing of the plane. Eugene comforted another screaming passenger as the plane crashed to the ground. He suffered broken ribs, but seven crew and eight passengers lost their lives. Eugene sprang into action and helped to yank survivors out of the burning wreckage before taking command of the site when he realized the captain was dead.
Eugene set up a triage station where injured people could receive some type of first aid treatment. He also organized a search party to scan the desert for assistance. By midday, the Syrian Army, having heard the radio transmission of their position while the plane was in trouble, found the crash site, and brought the survivors, including the heroic Eugene, to a hospital in Deir ez-Zor before some were flown to Damascus.
After finally returning home to the United States, Eugene couldn’t have been blamed if he’d had enough of airplanes for a while. The full investigation resulted in commendations for Eugene and the other crew members and admonishment for Pan Am for failing to replace a faulty engine, which the company had known about before that fateful flight. Eugene, however, stayed on with the airline until yet another incident finally made him call it quits. Enough is enough, even for an intrepid, battle-tested, veteran pilot.
Eugene went back to California and took up a new career: writing television shows. He had a few minor successes, but one particular show would make him a legend. When he finally got a television station to run with a little story about a brave young spaceship Captain from Iowa and his quirky science officer from another planet, Star Trek was born. Eugene, who preferred to be called Gene, as in Gene Roddenberry, cemented his place as the creator of one of the most prolific science fiction shows of all time. The man who went on nearly a hundred combat missions and kept flying despite numerous brushes with the ultimate tragedy would boldly go on to help revive a genre that was once on life support. The 13 movies from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) to Star Trek Beyond (2016) have grossed roughly $2.3 billion in revenues to date. The impact to not just science fiction, but to the cultural shifts worldwide is hard to overstate. Whether it's the legions of Trekkies flocking to their nearest convention hall to hope to get a glimpse of their heroes like William Shatner, or real-life scientists, astronauts, and inventors who can honestly attribute their careers to Gene's creative talents, it's clear that his work will live on. When humans finally do make contact with another species capable of receiving our calls, Gene's spirit will be there as humanity finds its true place in the galaxy. Wherever we go, let us go boldly.