Rockingham Now – Joe Dexter
Citizens were reminded of one of Rockingham County’s unsung heroes on July 30, during the dedication and unveiling of a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker honoring World War I fighter pilot Robert Opie Lindsay.
The marker is the 24th of its kind placed in Rockingham County. Over 1,500 state highway historical markers have been erected across the state’s 100 counties since 1936.
The dedication program and unveiling of the historical marker placed on the corner of U.S. 311 and Lindsay Bridge Road was sponsored by The Museum and Archives of Rockingham County in cooperation with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and N.C. DOT.
Residents gathered in the McMichael Community Room of the Madison-Mayodan Public Library were taken back to the beginning of combat aviation, as historians and fellow fighter pilots painted a picture of the fortitude flowing in the blood of one Opie Lindsay – an innovator born near Madison on Christmas Day in 1894.
A man that 24 years later, become a North Carolina icon in a span of six weeks.
From September to October of 1918, just a month prior armistice of 1918, Opie Lindsay shot down six German planes, becoming the only Tar Heel pilot to earn the designation of “ace”
According to documents housed online by The University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina Pilots flying with the Royal Air Force, French squadrons or U.S. Navy may have downed over 100 German planes during World War I.
His six combat victories were made official by ground observers during that period.
Mayor David Myers, who spoke during the dedication ceremony, gave those in attendance a vivid look into the everyday life of a fighter pilot risking life and death for his country in a primitive machine.
Myers, who rose to the rank of colonel during 30 years in the United States Marine Corps, retired in 2012 with more than 3,000 flight hours and 110 combat missions under his belt.
The accomplished compatriot credited Lindsay for creating a pathway for him to succeed in the air, as well as planting a foundation for the future of air service.
“It puts [the Town of Madison] on a new level,” said Myers, following the unveiling of the historical marker. “This gentleman laid a foundation for future aviation and fighting in air. If you look at Nellis Fighter Weapons School and TOPGUN, all of it started with pilots flying by the seats of their pants — literally. This means a lot to the community.”
Fellow pilot Mark Richardson also rose to the rank of colonel during his 24 years in the United States Air Force. The chairman of the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners shared during the ceremony that Lindsay’s accomplishments are stunning. According to Richardson, less than one in ten million Americans have ever achieved ace status.
“Even as a fighter pilot myself I cannot begin to explain all of the actions of Opie Lindsay,” Richardson said. “At that time, he flew an aircraft that was open cockpit with manual machine guns, unreliable engines and no verbal communication between aircraft. Everything in aircraft aviation was evolving and evolving very fast.
“…Your main source of protection was having a sharp eye, one that can find the enemy before they saw you. Your chariot was made of fabric, wood, wire and a very unreliable engine. You had no armor whatsoever. Some pilots sat on their helmet to provide some measure of protection. The only thing you had to protect you was having superior skills to that of your foe. To have survived even a few weeks in that environment is indeed an accomplishment and to make it through two world wars is extraordinary.”
Muriel Opie Lindsay, who paid tribute to her father during the dedication ceremony, was honored with the unveiling of the historical marker.
The Georgia resident read letters from her father’s post-war journal and gave the audience a sense of Opie’s character through a wartime letter that was sent home following an engagement overseas.
The story humorously depicted a crash in what was thought to be enemy territory. After watching his engine fail due to a spark-plug malfunction, Lindsay attempted to land his plane in safe territory by heading back towards France. His only problem was that no matter what direction he headed, his compass told him he was due north.
Lindsay lost her father at a young age but remembers him through his chronicles throughout the years.
She discovered him as a young man who thought long and deep about life. She did so through a journal he had written in for five years following the First World War.
Muriel read from those words of discovery, that never once mentioned the war, 75 years after her father first penned them.
“There really are no words,” said Muriel Lindsay after removing the covering over the historical marker prominently displaying the accolades of her father. “This has meaning beyond what I even knew it was going to. I’m just going to have to be with it a day a two. “I’m grateful and I don’t know why exactly, but that’s how I feel.”
For Richardson, gratefulness lies in the example Opie Lindsay set by exploring his own talents and making an indelible contribution to his nation. Richardson said honoring the Madison native wasn’t just right thing to do just because he was in need of another accolade .
“It’s the right thing to do because we need to remind our fellow citizens, especially our youth, that we have talents well beyond what we recognize on a daily basis,” Richardson said. We have capabilities waiting the opportunity to emerge. We too can make extraordinary contributions to both mankind and our country.
“We can use this sign, perhaps most effectively, as a reminder and training opportunity to remind our youth and fellow citizens of these potentials. And if we indeed take this opportunity and use this historic marker in such a way, today will not only have been a great day, it will help verify that you are living in a great place and doing the right thing.”