Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Philip C. Gast, who showed that gumption and tenacity can take your dreams anywhere, died Saturday, May 12th in Durham, N.C. He was 88.
Gen. Gast will be remembered professionally as a decorated and accomplished defender of his country, a skilled combat pilot and a respected military leader whose career took him across the country and around the world.
To family and friends, Phil will be remembered as a mesmerizing storyteller whose respect for his small-farm beginnings and sense of adventure never waned. He was known for his green thumb, aromatic pipe and the incredible work ethic that carried him from field to flight and beyond.
To say his was an extraordinary life would be an understatement. Phil was born near Philadelphia, Missouri, on Jan. 9, 1930, a rural child of the Great Depression. He grew up working on his parents’ small farm, raising soybeans, corn, cattle, pigs and anything else they could. He would retire from the Air Force with three stars and notable distinctions.
From a very early age, Phil (known in his community as “Bill”) and his siblings, Bob, Patricia and Judy, understood the value of hard work and initiative.
Phil (who would joke that he was the highest-ranking boy in his small high school class, but that he lagged behind most of the girls) became the first in his family to attend college, traveling to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. Having seen a plane fly over the farm one day, Phil set his sights on becoming a military pilot.
After graduating in 1952 from Mizzou, Phil dedicated his life to the service of our country. He met his wife, the former Kay Martin, while he was in gunnery training at Williams and Luke Air Forces bases and she was attending the University of Arizona. They married in 1954.
Phil’s 35-year Air Force career took him and his beloved family to a multitude of settings, from Moses Lake, Wash., to Ipswich (UK), Tehran (Iran) and Washington, D.C., with many stops in between.
As commander of the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based in Thailand, he flew 114 combat missions during the Vietnam War. He was credited with destroying one MiG-17. He never forgot those who flew with him and those that did not come home.
Phil rose through the ranks, serving as wing commander at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga. His many assignments included the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Security Assistance Agency.
Among his awards and decorations were the Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters.
His children called him “The Boss of the Base.”
He worked tirelessly during his career, which was enhanced by the never-ending efforts of “Kay Darlin’,” who supported him and cared for their children during a series of moves across the United States and to several countries. He retired in 1987, took a year off and traveled with Kay in a motor home, before beginning a decade-long consulting career with Burdeshaw Associates.
In 2001, he and Kay moved to Fredericksburg, Texas, where they immersed themselves in the Hill Country and the American West. They traveled in their motor home, affectionately dubbed “Tex,” and particularly enjoyed tracking the route of Lewis and Clark. Their grandchildren were treated to accompany them on many of the trips. They moved to Durham in 2009 to be closer to family.
As much as Phil loved the military and flying, he never lost his passion for the farm. He had majored in agriculture at Mizzou and would regularly visit the small farmhouse and tour “The 80,” even after the Marion County farm was sold and passed into the care of neighbors. He recently erected a sign on the farm in memory of his parents — Fred and Lolabel — who were stalwart community and church leaders.
Phil could tell ghost stories without rival (to the great delight of his grandchildren) and could charm a room and make anyone laugh. His family affectionately remembers the smell of his pipe and the green thumb he developed from years as a farm boy, which was demonstrated when he grew roses, dahlias and other flowers at many of their homes.
The general loved family gatherings, particularly at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where he would test his skills at a different kind of flying – kites. He enjoyed spending time in Texas and the Smoky Mountains and loved celebrating special events and family milestones.
Phil was interested in the lives and career paths of all of his grandchildren. He supported their pursuit of success. He and Kay imbued to their children and grandchildren a sense of adventure and the craving to explore and learn from the world.
He is survived by his partner of more than 63 years, Kay; his children, Tracy (Paul) Walczak, of Darby, Mt.; Phil Jr. (Susan) of Snellville, Ga.; and Mark, Baltimore, Md.; siblings Patricia (Jim) Chostner, of Palmyra, Mo.; Judy (Bill) Tucker, of Independence, Mo.; grandchildren, Jessica (Jose) Fuentes of Alexandria, Va.; Leslie Walczak (Ryne Smith), of Portland, Ore., Chloe (Orlando) Demasi, of Tucson, Ariz.; Andrew Gast (Whitney Morris), of Roswell, Ga.; Dennis (Ele) Gast, of Atlanta; and Xavier and Grace Gast, of Baltimore.
He was predeceased by his parents; brother Bob, whose wife, Mary Lou, survives; a granddaughter, Rachel Louise Gast; and daughter-in-law, Jennifer Wallis Gast.
Services will be held later at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Phil’s family has found comfort in reflecting on all the reasons to be proud of him. The family has lost a devoted husband, father and grandfather. America has lost one of its precious heroes.
See you on the other side, “Chevrolet 01.”