Thursday, June 5, 2008

After 40 years, hero honored

After 40 years, hero honored

MOBILE | Forty years ago, only a few people knew how Jack Weeks died. Friends who had lost track of him likely didn't even hear of his death.

On Wednesday, the USS Alabama Battleship Commission attempted to make up for lost time with its 'Long Overdue Tribute to Jack W. Weeks.'

'We're so proud to honor him today as an American hero and a fellow Alabamian,' said Col. Barney Gass, the commission's chairman, during a ceremony at Battleship Park.

Weeks, a University of Alabama graduate and Birmingham native, died 40 years ago Wednesday while flying the super secret A-12 high level surveillance plane over the Pacific Ocean. His mission was so secret that even his wife didn't know he was working for the CIA until after his death. Even then, she couldn't tell anyone about the program he was involved in until the information was declassified in September 2007.

'He was a patriot in the true sense of the word,' Sharlene Weeks said during the ceremony. 'He would not see this as a single honor but as an honor for all of the men' who flew and worked with him.

Former pilots, engineers and ground crew from the A-12 program, along with members of the Battleship Commission and Weeks' family and friends, were on hand for the ceremony. The commission dedicated the A-12 on display at Battleship Park in Weeks' honor and the plane bears his name.

The ceremony also included a flyover by an Air Force tanker plane. It is part of a two-day celebration that will include a symposium by members of the Roadrunners, the nickname given those associated with the A-12 program. And Battleship Commission Executive director Bill Tunnell read a commendation from Gov. Bob Riley that called Weeks 'an Alabamian of distinction and an American of heroic proportions.'

'We've waited 40 years to do this,' said T.P. Barnes, president of Roadrunners Internationale, an organization comprised of people who took part in the A-12 program. Even that veterans organization had to remain secret until nine months ago.

The mention of Weeks' UA ties during the ceremony drew a respectful 'Roll Tide' from some members of the audience.

Veterans of the A-12 program will hold a symposium today at Battleship Park.

Sharlene Weeks told her husband's story to Tuscaloosa News for a story published Sunday, May 25. Since then, word has spread to his friends about what Weeks did.

Greene County resident Bradley Brown said he bought a copy of the paper at the Eutaw Bait and Gun Shop, as he does every morning. He was surprised to see his old high school and college friend's picture on the front page.

'I said, ‘My God, that's Jackie Weeks,'' Brown said. 'I got the paper and read the whole thing right there sitting in the front seat of my truck.'

Brown had not seen Weeks since they were both commissioned in 1955, Weeks into the Air Force and Brown into the Army.

'I just lost him,' Brown said, shaking his head. 'I lost a lot of them.'

But he didn't miss the opportunity to honor his old school mate. In the story, Sharlene Weeks said she had hoped to contact Dan Saltsman, who was Weeks' best man in their wedding. Brown tracked him down and Saltsman traveled from central Florida to attend the ceremony.

Saltsman, Weeks' college roommate at UA, last saw Weeks on a visit to California in the 1960s and Weeks told him then that he worked for Hughes Aircraft Corp.

'He honored his confidentiality,' Saltsman recalled. 'But I knew he was into something more than he was telling me.'

Both Brown and Saltsman remember a bright young man who excelled at West End High School in Birmingham and UA, with a promising future ahead of him.

'Him and William Brakefield got me though chemistry,' Brown said, chuckling. 'He was a super nice guy, a good looking young man. All the girls were falling all over him.'

Saltsman said Weeks was gifted from a very young age.

'Jack was piddling with motors and motor scooters while I was trying to blow up bicycle tires,' he laughed.

Boots Schmidt of Tuscaloosa was also was surprised to read about Weeks. She knew Sharlene Weeks from a period when they both lived in California. Sharlene Weeks, an ordained minister, directed Schmidt's wedding and gave her and her husband premarital counseling.

'She is the most phenomenal woman I've ever met,' said Schmidt, who attended the ceremony Wednesday. 'She kept the secret. I never knew Jack, but she told me what she could at the time.'

Weeks is credited with getting the first photographs of the USS Pueblo after the intelligence gathering ship was captured by the North Koreans in 1968. It was an important accomplishment, said CIA historian David Robarge.

'The mission that Jack Weeks flew over North Korea probably alleviated conflict,' Robarge said.

The photos Weeks took of the Pueblo wound up on the president's desk and confirmed that the North Koreans had captured the ship. It allowed the U.S. to begin negotiating for the crew's release, which took 11 months.

Weeks was no stranger to Cold War conflict. He flew an F-100 fighter-bomber armed with nuclear weapons during the Soviet Union's crisis with Hungary in 1956, knowing it would be a one-way mission if he was called upon to attack, Sharlene Weeks said.

'Jack was a Cold War warrior long before he became a CIA pilot,' she said.

Tunnell closed the ceremony by reading Riley's commendation. After a pause, he ended with the words, 'Long live the spirit of Jack Weeks.'



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