Retired Air Force Colonel Thomas Howard Saunders Sr., age 82, passed away on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, at Tuomey Regional Medical Center.
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He was born in Worth County, Ga., on March 7, 1930, the son of the late Charlie Eugene and Mamie Roberts Saunders.
Upon graduation from Doerun High School, he moved from Georgia to Connecticut, where he enlisted in the United States Air Force, serving for three years during the Korean conflict as a tactical instructor of basic trainees. Upon discharge in 1952, he entered the University of Connecticut, graduating in 1956 as ROTC Wing commander, recipient of the Order of the Sword, Arnold Air Society, with a regular commission in the United States Air Force as a second lieutenant.
Thus began his three-decade long career as an Air Force officer. Colonel Saunders was a veteran of the Vietnam War, having flown 101 missions over North Vietnam, during which time he was hit on two occasions, successfully returning severely damaged aircraft to base.
He was a member of the Order of the Daedalians, Sons of the American Revolution, Arnold Air Society, American Legion, Sumter's Masonic Lodge No. 364 and Military Officer's Association.
During his distinguished career he earned, among many other awards, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Meritorious Service Medals, 11 Air Medals and two Combat Readiness Medals. He served at Lackland and Laredo Air Force Bases in Texas; Loan Air Force Base, France; Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.; Udorn Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand; Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.; AFSOUTH NATO, Naples, Italy, Zweibrucken Air Base, Germany; Ramstein Air Base Germany; and Eglin Air Force Base, where he retired.
When he wasn't flying his revered RF-4C Phantom or RF-101 VooDoo, Tom (call sign "Husky") enjoyed gardening, playing golf with his buddies, hunting for the BIG buck and catching whatever was biting that day. Not only did he find much joy in his hobbies, he found even more joy in sharing them with his grandchildren and younger extended family members.
Surviving in addition to his wife Mary are: a son, Thomas Howard Saunders Jr. and his wife, Susan Gail Hatfield of Prosperity, S.C.; three daughters, Cindy Joan Saunders Beeson and her husband George Kenneth of Bulverde, Texas, Tamara Lynn Saunders Bingham of Tokyo, Japan, and Lorri Michelle Saunders of Sumter, S.C.; a brother, Charlie H. Saunders of Crestview; a sister, Marguerite Saunders Pitts of Doerun, Ga.; five grandchildren, Thomas Howard Saunders III and his wife Kate of Oviedo, Jessica Renee Saunders Cooley and her husband SMSgt. Scott of Great Falls, Mich., Michael David Beeson and his wife Roxanne McDowell of Dripping Springs, Texas, Mark Andrew Beeson and his wife Tanya Ammons of San Antonio, and Austen Glenn Bingham and his wife Hannah of Carrollton, Ga.; four great-grandchildren, Coryn Renee Cooley, Clayton Lee Cooley, Aidyn Katherine Saunders and Gorman Owen Beeson.
He was preceded in death by his parents; two brothers, Curtis E. Saunders and Calvin Saunders; and a sister, Myrtle Saunders Massini.
A graveside service with full military honors is Thursday, Oct. 25, at 2 p.m. at Fort Jackson National Cemetery with the Rev. Mike Hatfield officiating.
The family will receive friends Thursday from 12-1 p.m. at Bullock Funeral Home.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Daedalian Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 3192, Sumter, SC 29150, the Tamassee DAR School, 1925 Bumgardner Drive Tamassee, SC 29686, or to a
Sign the family's guest book at www.bullockfuneralhome.com. The family chose Bullock Funeral Home, S.C., for the arrangements.
His brother, Charlie Saunders, stated, "I deeply regret the passing of my brother, Col. Thomas H. Saunders. He was a great man that would go out of his way to help anyone. He was also fearless during his wartime missions, flying the Phantom F4, even after being shot up a couple times, he would get back in another F4 the next day if one was available.
"I would also like to recognize his wife, Mary Saunders. She always stood behind him during all those missions he flew, and she stayed with him every day while he was ill. I know she was afraid each time he went on a mission, but she was always there for him and the whole family really appreciates her solid support of him. Thank you Mary!"
Published in The Crestview News Bulletin on Oct. 25, 2012