It’s hard to even fathom what thoughts go through a person’s head in the final moments of a crisis where they must choose between their own life or the lives of others.
Such a crisis came to Captain Gary L. Herod on Wednesday, March 15, 1961. A pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, Herod was barely in the air over Houston, Texas when his plane began to falter. With the plane’s engine failing, he tried first to return to Ellington Field Airport, and radioed the control tower that he planned to eject himself from the plane.
Somewhere in those seconds, though, he realized that doing so would leave the plane to crash into a suburban neighborhood filled with young families in a popular Houston suburb known as Meyerland.
This excruciating choice included the fact that Herod had a wife and two children of his own. As the tower asked for confirmation of his intent to eject, Herod’s last words were “not yet.”
He went down with his plane into a vacant field on the north bank of Brays Bayou, the lone casualty of this tragedy. Maybe he hoped that he might be able to safely land the plane, or maybe he fully knew the sacrifice he was making.
A couple of months later, a “Hero” tree was planted with a plaque commemorating his sacrifice at the site of the popular Meyerland Plaza Shopping Center, and in 1965, a local elementary school was named for him. Nearly 57 years later, with the tree failing in health, his plaque and memorial were moved to the nearby elementary school bearing his name. Herod was also posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross from the United States Air Force.
In April of 1961, a month after the accident, a memorial fund dispersed $2,600 in donations to Herod’s wife. She wrote a thank you letter, which was published in the Bellaire Texan, a local newspaper.
“I cannot help but consider, in wonder,” she wrote, “the circumstance which could make it possible for my husband to gain for himself in a few short tragic minutes, more friends than many men gain in a lifetime.”
She went on to say that she planned to dedicate these funds to her childrens’ education. “I feel this is fitting, for I am conscious of the fact that these funds represent to a large degree the gratitude of parents for the well being of their own children and concern for our children who must face life without their father.”
She signed the letter, “Mrs. Gary L. Herod.”
To learn more about Gary L. Herod, visit these resources:
- Wikipedia: Gary L. Herod
- The Houston Chronicle: Meyerland ‘Hero Tree’ honoring pilot killed in 1961 crash is cut down
- Texas Digital Newspaper Program: The Bellaire Texan, Wednesday, April 19, 1961, “Captain Herod’s Widow Expresses Thanks in Letter.”