Before he had ever climbed behind the wheel of a car, Roland “Rocky” Gannon found his calling in a cockpit.
For 37 years, the Ocean City native served in the U.S. Air Force, logging more than 6,000 hours of flight time in 34 different aircraft, from bombers and transports to gliders and fighters. He flew as a combat pilot in World War II, the Korean War, the Belgian Congo and 387 active missions during the Vietnam War. He has 50 military awards and decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, 10 Air Medals, four Meritorious Service Medals and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm.
But his humble roots and dedication to community service always remained at the forefront of Gannon’s mission. Today, the 93-year-old veteran often speaks at schools, parades and Boy Scout meetings, trying to pass along his love for flying and service to younger generations.
“If I can impact them like (others) did to me, I’ve done my part,” Gannon said from his home in Darlington, S.C. “I want to motivate the kids. That’s what it’s all about.”
Gannon’s father passed away when he was 9 years old and his mother was an invalid. Growing up in the post-Depression era, Gannon’s family home did not have working electricity. On his 12th birthday, Gannon came home and the power had been turned on thanks to the local undertaker and scoutmaster, J.P. Cadman, who paid the bill and convinced the youngster to work off the debt. Gannon also joined the Boy Scouts and worked his way up through the ranks, eventually becoming a pack leader and an Eagle Scout.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, as a 17-year-old junior at Ocean City High School, Gannon enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He immediately entered pilot training and was soon piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress. At 20 years old, he was flying the B-29 Super Fortress.
“I never finished the 11th grade, I had never driven a car,” he said with a chuckle, “yet there I was, an aircraft commander.”
He was twice selected by the Department of Defense to be the U.S. Air Traffic Controller and Director of Communications for the American participants at the 1959 and 1961 Paris Air Shows. In 1975, he became the U.S. Air Force’s first Master Air Traffic Controller.
In 1975, Gannon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was given a 10 percent chance to live another six months. He signed up for an experimental oncology treatment, which proved effective.
After his retirement from the Air Force in 1980, he became an international aviation consultant. Later, he accepted the position of executive director of the regional airport in Florence, S.C., retiring from that position in 1993.
In 2001, he was named the South Carolina “Aviator of the Year” and was inducted into the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame.
Two years later, he received his high school diploma.
Gannon remains active in his community, serving on nine boards and commissions. He was the recipient of the Boy Scouts of America’s Silver Beaver Award and served as president of the Pee Dee Area (South Carolina) Council for two years. In 2009, he received scouting’s highest honor, the “Distinguished Eagle Award.” In 2016, he received his local scout council’s “Distinguished Citizen Award,” honoring his 80 years in the Boy Scouts.
He has been married to wife, Roberta, for 67 years, who he still calls the “most beautiful girl in the world.” The couple have three children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
The family still owns property in Ocean City.
“All my dreams to fly and see the world were satisfied,” he said.