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The Cross Man

Murphy whittles in his retirement after flying in Vietnam, hurricanes

By Lee Wardlaw
Posted 5/18/23

MIDDLEBURG – Roger Murphy is a longtime resident, a local legend, an American hero – and much more.

Murphy’s life was simple, growing up in rural Georgia. Murphy took the school bus, …

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The Cross Man

Murphy whittles in his retirement after flying in Vietnam, hurricanes


MIDDLEBURG – Roger Murphy is a longtime resident, a local legend, an American hero – and much more.

Murphy’s life was simple, growing up in rural Georgia. Murphy took the school bus, attended classes and ran to the local movie theater, where he had a part-time job.

Roger’s life would take a severe turn when his father was paralyzed in a construction accident. Soon after the near-fatal accident, he enlisted in the Navy. His brother also enlisted in the Armed Forces.

“Well, that looks good to me,” Roger recalled his father saying after he handed his bedridden father a pen to sign his paperwork. 

That was just the beginning of a long, twisted, and legendary life journey for Roger, who will turn 86 in July.

During a 22-year career in the Navy, Roger and his squadron had a career that resembled a Hollywood movie scene.

Murphy was a metalsmith and cook for the “Hurricane Hunters,” which would dangerously fly into hurricanes and tropical cyclones to gather data and simultaneously send it to the National Weather Center in Miami every 15 minutes.

“We would drop what you call “drop buoys in,” and (the devices) would (tell you) what the wind speeds were and (the other data),” he said.

That was before satellites tracked powerful, dangerous, destructive coastal storms.

The calm lay within the storm’s center when Roger and his squadron arrived at their 100-mph-plus destination, but getting in and out was a hellacious journey.

“So, the wind would be going one way, and we would start going the other way and get the wind on our tail. We would fly into the eye, and we were just sitting there. Then, we would keep going into a circle until we were about 20,000 ft., and we would be above (the hurricane). As we would leave, we would be looking down on it, and it was perfectly round,” Murphy said.

For Roger flying into the eye of the powerful storms just wasn’t enough for the ambitious, adrenaline junkie who joined the Vietnam War.

He made five deployments on five ships, where Roger and his squadron would cruise along the coast of North and South Vietnam in helicopters.

Their mission was to search for fallen fighter pilots shot down at distances of up to 6,000-7,000 feet – all amid the chaos of war.

“What are those big white poles?” Murphy remembered asking.

He found out they were surface-to-air missiles (SAM rockets).

Murphy’s Helicopter Combat Support 7 mission was to fly at 30 knots (34 mph) 30 ft above fighter pilots, hovering in motion over the South China Sea with a major deadline to meet. That’s because the chute attached to the fallen fighter pilots is like an anchor. If somebody didn’t quickly rescue them, they could sink. That’s where Helicopter Combat Support 7 would come in to save the day.

“We would jump out and get (the pilot) out of his chute and get (the pilot), and the (crew member) hooked up with a harness. The helo (helicopter) would roam up and down the beach to make sure they didn’t lose (the pilot) because the chute is like an anchor. Then, they would throw out (the cable), and you grab it, and it would get you and the pilot up (to the helicopter),” he said.

Among their rescues included one pilot who had torn the muscle out of his arm. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Before retiring from the military, he spent a year in Bushehr, Iran, as a leading chief and TAFT (Technical Assistance and Field Trainer), where he trained soldiers in swimming and rescue.

That was the sacrifice Murphy had to bite to live out his dream of permanently relocating to the Jacksonville area with his wife.

But his commanding officer wouldn’t allow him to relocate to the Naval Air Station Jacksonville base. He got around that order by spending a year in the Middle East.

“That was the most miserable year of my life, spending time away from my family,” he said.

It was one year without his wife, Mary, who had been on his side throughout their 59-year marriage.

“We haven’t killed each other yet, so that must mean we like each other,” she said laughingly.

After two decades of service to his country, Murphy worked at NAS-Jax as a civilian, moving up in rank from sheet metal mechanic to progress man to estimating planner during a decorated career from 1977-2004.

But during that time, he suffered a heart attack at his Middleburg home in 1999. After the attack, his next instinct may have seemed unnatural to 99% of others – becoming a pilot.

“(After) getting out of the hospital, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve always flown with the crew, so I want to be a pilot. So, I got out and got into a flying club at the base,” he said.

He was 64 when he earned his pilot’s license. The next step?

“Well, I’ve got to have an airplane,” he said.

But one wasn’t enough.

He flew a 1946 Stinson 108, an aircraft that is similar to the Alaskan Bush plane, and worked on a Zenair Zodiac.

“After I bought the (Zenair Zodiac), I said, ‘Well, I need someplace to put it.’ So, I put it at (Melrose Landing Airport) and bought five acres of land down there,” he said.

Murphy and his friends spent every weekend putting together the project plane together. But they couldn’t get the engine to fire.

Roger still owns the engine but gave away the parts for his dream project. After that, he retired in 2004.

But he still wasn’t finished.

“When I retired, I had to do something else. I’m not going to sit around and die behind the TV,” he said.

So, he got involved with Middleburg United Methodist Church’s “Food Bridge.”

“Business” has skyrocketed by 87% in 18 years.

“We did only about 35-40 families at the time. Last Thursday, we did about 300,” Murphy said.

Housed at the church’s Budington Building of Hope, its refrigerated truck travels to eight retail stores in Orange Park and Middleburg to pick up food in partnership with Feeding Northeast Florida.

When the truck returns, the scene is surreal and action-packed, with volunteers unloading, weighing, sorting and storing food items, complete with a walk-in freezer and refrigerator.

The operation is open all week, all in preparation for “Big Thursday,” where food is disturbed 7:30-10:30 a.m.

During the drive-thru, no-contact process, local families of one-to-four family members receive 40-50 pounds of frozen meat, fresh produce, bread, dry goods and dairy products. Families of five members or more receive 80-100 pounds of goods.

Winn-Dixie, Publix, Walmart, Dollar General and Rose’s locations all contribute to the volunteer mega-operation feeding hungry families. Dogs and cats aren’t forgotten, either.

In the meantime, Murphy found a way to convert his homey garage to whittle fine Chrisitan crosses out of cedar.

But you don’t need to think about pulling out your checkbook if you want one.

“I don’t sell them,” he said.

“I’ve probably made over 2,000 over the last 15 years. I don’t make money off of them because God gave me the talent to do this, and if I charge for it, I feel that he might come and take (that talent) away from me,” he said.

“He loves making them as a ministry to comfort people going through difficult times,” his wife said.

Murphy’s crosses are so impactful those facing an operation or surgery refuse to give up the beautiful works of art as they are wheeled to the operating room.

“They call me the cross man,” Murphy said.