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15885 Gatch, Thomas Leigh
September 13, 1925 - January 01, 1974



Published Assembly Jan '90

Thomas Leigh Gatch, Jr.  No.15885  Class of 1946 Lost in a balloon over the Atlantic, last sighted 21 February 1974 about 1000 miles west of the Canary Islands, aged 48 years.

     Tom came to West Point from a long and illustrious military family tradition. His grandfather, Robert B. Dashiell, graduated from the Naval Academy in the 1880's. His uncle, General Julian S. Hatcher, was also an Annapolis graduate, but transferred into the Army in 1909. Tom's father, Vice Admiral Thomas L. Gatch, gained fame in World War II as the skipper of the battleship South Dakota, also known as "Battleship X" in the decisive Battle of the Coral Sea. Tom was born in Annapolis, Maryland, 13 September 1925. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.

   One of Tom's roommates recalls that his plebe year was reminiscent of the adventures of Ducrot Pepys-full of high jinks superimposed with Tom's irrepressible good humor. One of his favorites was Tom standing atop his desk with a pillow stuffed in his B-robe, expounding on a variety of subjects a la "Senator Claghorn," the Al Capp character from the Lil Abner comic strip. Tom demonstrated that he was a very smart guy as a cadet, but his love of life was too great to take himself or his intelligence too seriously.

Going into the Field Artillery. Tom served with the 7th Division Artillery in Japan following the basic course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He returned to Fort Sill for the advanced course and then served in the Korean War with the 58th Artillery Battalion of the 3rd Division. This was followed by assignments with the 11th Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the 8th Division in Germany. In this latter assignment, he was detailed as an advisor to the German Army, and later served as a liaison officer to the British Army of the Rhine. In 1961, Tom left active duty to try his hand at other things, but he stayed active in the Army Reserve. He later served several tours on active duty and graduated from Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1964. He received the Legion of Merit for his work in the Reserves, particularly for his efforts with the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency. At the time of his disappearance, Tom held the rank of colonel in the US Army Reserve.

Tom received a master of fine arts from Catholic University in 1963, majoring in drama and English literature. This, in reality, was a continuation of Tom's interests, as he had written a novel while on active duty. This book entitled King Julian had as its premise that George Washington had agreed to become America's king instead of president. He later wrote several plays including musicals. One of his plays was produced in the Ford Theater in Washington.

In 1970, Tom took his first hot air balloon ride, an event that had far more significance than he could ever have believed at that time. One of Tom's sisters described him as enthusiastic, original, creative, and imaginative. All of these descriptive terms came into play as Tom continued to delve into the realm of lighter than air flight. Ironically, Tom's father, as a young naval officer, had been the chief investigating officer for the Macon dirigible disaster. Tom became a student and advocate of the use of the wind as a natural resource that must be utilized if our planet is to survive. He had always been fascinated with the forces of nature, and he began to contemplate the feasibility of pollution-free transportation using the wind as an energy source. He believed that man had to free himself from dependence on fossil fuels which were ruining this planet. To him, the harnessing of the energies of nature is the salvation of the earth; wind, water, and sun are there to be used wisely. When they are working with us, and we with them, our world will once again be clean, beautiful and healthy.

Tom's attempt to be the first person to cross the Atlantic by balloon was different from any previous approach. Vincent Lally, manager of the Global Atmospheric Measurements Program for the National Center for Atmospheric Research at Boulder, Colorado, said at the time, "All the others have been adventure flights. I feel this is the first attempt for an Atlantic crossing based on reasonable, technical grounds. Gatch is attempting to work with nature instead of working against it." Tom planned to ascend to 39,000 feet using a cluster of 10 high pressure helium balloons, and let the jet stream winds push him to Europe. Unlike other projects, Tom had no rich backers. For the attempt to cross the Atlantic, he spent $60,000 of his own plus two years of full-time work preparing his project, which he named Light Heart. He built the gondola at his home in Virginia. Six feet in diameter, extremely lightweight, it was insulated and also had the capability to bounce off radar if he were forced to ditch. The gondola was to be sealed and pressurized during its flight. Finally, at 1929 hours on 18 February 1974, at Harrisburg Airport in Pennsylvania, Tom Gatch stood in the hatch of the Light Heart and waved goodbye to his friends and family as they released the ropes that allowed the Light Heart to rise into the heavens. In the rigging of the gondola was a pennant from his father's battleship, the South Dakota.

In 33 minutes, Tom had reached 18,000 feet over Dover, Delaware and headed toward Atlantic City. At 2100 hours, he reported that he had stabilized at 33,550 feet. He also reported that at 2045 hours one of his ten balloons had burst, reason unknown, but Tom was determined to go on. Tom said the balloon was draped over his sealed gondola and covered one of his three portholes. Asked how his spirits were, Tom answered, "I think the situation is stabilized now. No reason I shouldn't proceed." That night and the next day, Tom floated on an easterly course. He consistently checked in with passing airliners at 35,000-36,000 feet. The final contact was with BOAC flight 583 at 1250 hours Tuesday, 19 February, 925 miles northeast of San Juan. It was evident from the airliner's communication that the Light Heart was moving on a course far to the south of Tom's plots. Also he was moving away from the most heavily traveled commercial air lanes. Through Tuesday night and Wednesday, there were no reports from Tom nor any sightings. Tom's associates were not alarmed at this point, as they assumed that he was simply out of radio range. The Liberian freighter Ore Meridian spotted the Light Heart shortly after dawn on Thursday, 1000 miles west of the Canaries. Even farther south than before. The Meridian's report didn't reach his associates until Friday at noon. Now they were worried. The Meridian reported an apparently lifeless balloon floating far off course and at an unaccountably low altitude. Except for unproven balloon or life raft reports in scattered areas, no further information about Tom has been received since the Meridian's sighting on 21 February 1974. There was an intensive search by US military aircraft and ships, as well as commercial planes and vessels, all to no avail. Tom's sister offered a $10,000 reward and distributed flyers in likely areas with information about Tom's flight. Again, no response.

   We will never know for sure what happened to our friend, classmate, and brother. We do know that the world lost a remarkable man. His niece, Jocklyn Armstrong, wrote an article about Tom's flight in Pegasus. She wrote, "Tom did more than think and dream; he made what he thought and dreamed about happen. He used his own logic, and in areas where he did not have expertise, he consulted those that did. He listened and he dared. Tom's lifestyle rejected apathy and inertia. His drive had to do with freedom and going beyond himself. February 18, 1974, Tom Gatch lifted off in a small white sphere suspended under ten white balloons. He has disappeared. His determination and imagination have not."

  One of Tom's roommates said, "Tom was a wonderful person and I am certain that he 'shed this mortal coil' in the fashion which matched his temperament-with a flair." Tom's family endowed a scholarship for an acolyte in the National Cathedral Choir in Tom's memory. This was done because Tom had a beautiful boy-soprano voice and had spent two years as a choir member at St. Albans. At the memorial service, the Dean of the National Cathedral read from a credo that Tom carried in his wallet. It said in part, "You are as young as your faith, as old as your debts. Live every day of your life as though you expect to live forever." In reminiscing about Tom, one of his sisters said, "Little did I realize that someday I would enter the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington to see my young brother's balloon pictured on its beautiful take-off from the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania airport. He was one of the balloon immortals."
   Tom faced a different danger than we anticipated when we were cadets, but faced it as we all knew he would. Tom Gatch has joined "The Long Gray Line." Those of us who remain behind can only say, "Well Done, Be Thou At Peace."

              '46 Memorial Article Project and his sisters, Nancy and Eleanor

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