USAF Gen. Tom Sadler, who flew 400 combat missions in three wars, dies

Maj. Gen. Tom Sadler
Maj. Gen. Tom Sadler courtesy of Speedway Motorsports Inc.

When he retired an Air Force major general in 1983, Tom Sadler had spent 37 years in the military and was the country’s only active duty general who’d flown more than 400 combat missions in three wars – during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

That earned him a chestful of medals.

Sadler came to Charlotte in 1983 to run an aviation company, which he left after five years. In 1991, he became something of a local folk hero during the first Persian Gulf War, analyzing war tactics – and spouting his conservative views – in his Alabama twang for listeners of a popular morning radio show hosted by Johnny “John Boy” Isley and his sidekick Billy James.

But where he perhaps found his greatest joy and passion was running for nearly 25 years the Speedway Children’s Charities, a charity based at Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s eight tracks that has raised millions since 1982 and helped more than 300,000 needy children.

Monday, Sadler, who fought his first war as a teenaged nose gunner on a B-17 bomber during World War II, died in Mount Pleasant, S.C., at an assisted living facility. He was 90. Funeral services are scheduled for Monday at Charlotte’s Calvary Church.

“He had more medals than (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur, but he never bragged about it,” said Humpy Wheeler, former president of Speedway Motorsports. “We’d be at dinner and I’d say, ‘Come on, Tom, you got to tell us some war stories,’ and he’d refuse to embellish anything.”

“Tom was just a fabulous, very generous, man with a big human heart.”

According to the U.S. Air Force website, Sadler was born in 1925 in Canton, Ohio, but his family moved to Montgomery, Ala., where he finished high school in 1943.

World War II was raging when he graduated and Sadler joined the Army Air Corps three months later, assigned to the European theater in a B-17. He flew 35 missions with the 8th Air Force’s 92nd Bombardment Group.

Honorably discharged in December 1945, Sadler enrolled at the University of Alabama, but in October 1948 returned to active duty and became a pilot. In 14 months during the Korean War, he flew 300 combat missions in a P-51 fighter plane. In January 1966, he was sent to Vietnam, where he flew “scout” planes rooting out enemy troops.

That would be his last war, but not the end to his military career. In August, 1971, he was assigned as commander of the 322nd Tactical Air Wing at Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany until 1974, and then commanded an airlift wing in Charleston.

He retired from the Air Force in October 1983, a command pilot with more than 9,300 flying hours.

Soon he and wife Mary, known as “Miss Ken” (she died 2008), were moving their two children to Charlotte where Sadler ran an aviation company and immediately got involved in the city’s civic scene – in Rotary, the Boy Scouts and Operation Christmas Child.

A year before he arrived, Bruton Smith, Speedway Motors executive chairman, and then-wife Bonnie had started the Speedway Children’s Charities at the Charlotte Motor Speedway to honor their infant daughter who died in a crib accident, Wheeler said.

In 1989, Smith persuaded Sadler to grow the charity.

“He did that every day he worked for me,” Smith said. “Gen. Sadler often said, ‘When you look into the eyes of a child in need, you’re looking into the eyes of God.’ He was incredibly dedicated to making a difference for kids who may not have been able to help themselves.”

He was a pilot who became a NASCAR fan, He became a fixture in the garage, respected by many of the drivers who knew his military credentials.

Under Sadler’s guidance, the charity grew to Speedway Motorsports’ other seven tracks. Since its beginning, the charity has raised nearly $50 million, said Don Hawk, the company’s senior vice president for business affairs. “Bruton Smith and Tom Sadler did it because they love kids,” Hawk said.

Much of the money has been raised at the charity’s annual ball on the Thursday before the Coca-Cola 600 race each May in Charlotte.

Sadler always came in his Air Force formal mess dress uniform with the left chest of his jacket dripping in medals.

“On that night, he was the general,” Wheeler said. “I’d say, ‘Boss, you missed one of those medals,’ and he’d just grumble and wave me away. He was a humble man and a complete joy to be with.”

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Services for Gen. Sadler

Funeral Services for Gen. Tom Sadler will be 4 p.m. Monday at Calvary Church, 5801 Pineville-Matthews Road, Charlotte. Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the church. Burial will follow in the church cemetery with a flyover of P-51s in a missing man formation.