When the former Naval Air Station Fallon public affairs officer retired earlier this year, the installation’s executive secretary said James “Zip” Upham will be missed and remembered for his addiction to the late singer Jimmy Buffet, who was known for his light tropical rock and Caribbean lifestyle.
Upham will be forever known for his brightly colored dress shirts and neckties and the fedora he wore when conducting tours at NAS Fallon or his kilts at a Robert Burns night or flowery shirts at the cantaloupe festival.
“Zip was amazing with all the tours and the information he has,” said Brandee Brown, executive assistant at NAS Fallon. “He was very good for that history. He’s done a lot of traveling, and he sits on the library board. He’s well established in the community.”
The 57-year-old Upham, who spent more than a decade as a naval officer and 20 years as a civilian government employee, retired at the end of June.
“He knows this place inside and out, and what I appreciate about Zip is that he brings a historical and sound aspects and value to Northern Nevada,” said commanding officer Capt. Shane Tanner. “Every time I listen to him speak, it reminds me how much of a treasure this place is. Personally, thank you for enriching my life and enriching all the lives of the people who live here and all the people who have given tour and to educate people.”
Rear Admiral Tim Beard, left, former commander of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, congratulates Lt. Zip Upham on his 10 years of military service.
Courtesy Upham family
SEE THE WORLD
By the time Upham and his future bride, Nancy, arrived in Fallon, he already had “seen the world.”
“I grew up everywhere,” Upham chuckled. “My father was a preventive medicine officer in Malaysia helping the local with things like malaria. I was an Army brat.”
When the family returned to the United States, they relocated to Maine where Upham graduated from high school. Instead of remaining in the Bay State for college, Upham wanted to attend a university noted for its educational programs.
His attention turned to Atlanta and Emory University, which was founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1836 as Emory College. The decision to attend the private research university had been subtly nurtured by Upham’ father, Robert.
“My father had worked with a couple of folks who were attached with the Centers for Disease Control and graduated from Emory University. He recommended Emory,” Upham said.
Bob Upham, though, had completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Maine in Orono and finished a five-year enlistment with the U.S. Army. Bob joined the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps in 1957 and served as a medical entomologist for 22 years. A veteran of the Vietnam War, retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1978.
Zip said Emory’s beautiful campus offered those “wonderful Southern liberal arts opportunities.”
“That’s where I met my (future) wife, Nancy,” Upham boasted.
Any thoughts of pounding the sidewalks for employment or entering a graduate program were short-lived for Upham, who received his diploma in 1988 with a major in Soviet and Eastern European studies. He enlisted in the Navy’s officer graduate program, but he didn’t know what to say to his father. During a talk with his mother Jimmie, though, he discovered his father wanted to be a submariner, but his 6-foot, 4-inch height and subpar 20-20 vision disqualified him. The Army, though, quickly accepted Bob into their ranks. He said that revelation from his mother allowed him “to get off the hook” into entering the Navy’s officer program.
“I was the opposite of my father,” Upham said, noting Bob enlisted first and then attended college.
The younger Upham was bound to Pensacola, Florida, where he entered the Aviation Officer Candidate School to become an intelligence officer. Ironically to Upham, though, the Marines were the school’s drill instructors. From Pensacola after AOCS, the newly minted intel officer was assigned to a Navy A7 Squadron aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy. Upham said he reported to a “very good squadron” that ended up being one of the last A7 squadrons in the Navy.
Zip Upham’s good friend, Kristopher Haugh, left, gives him a retirement gift.
THE TOURS BEGIN
Because of Desert Shield and then Desert Storm when coalition forces began bombing Iraq in mid-January 1991, the Kennedy had been deployed to the Persian Gulf region for 10 months. Upham briefed the command on intelligence threats and targets.
Upham received orders for his next assignment and was headed to another desert, that of the sagebrush and sand that surrounded Naval Air Station Fallon almost 2,700 miles from Jacksonville.
“I drove my fiancé and all of our belongings out to Fallon,” Upham said, adding he had previously been to NAS Fallon with weapons detachments. “Nancy had never been out to Fallon.”
Upham realized Fallon would be different from the east coast for his fiancé, so he tried to soothe Nancy’s anxiety by telling her Fallon had many horses and 10,000 people. Nancy, though, questioned his population figures for Fallon when they passed a sign on U.S. 95 north of Fallon stating the Churchill County seat had 6,024 residents.
“The comment they have horses in Fallon is a true statement,” Upham said, laughing. “The sign with 6,024 … that was culture shock.”
Upham reported as the intel officer for Strike U or more formally known as the Naval Strike Warfare Center. Lt. Cmdr. Richard Gent, who would later retire from the Navy and remain in Fallon, was in charge of the airwing intelligence training. Upham also attended the Air Force Targeting School at Goodfellow Air Force Base at San Angelo, Texas, where most targeting courses are taught. He said the targets for the west coast were based at NAS Fallon.
Zip and Nancy married in November 1991, but 10 months later when they traveled to Florida, they had a church wedding with her parents in attendance. Upham completed one more deployment aboard the USS Carl Vinson and a carrier air wing. He left active duty after a decade and for the next five years, he drilled as a reservist and had the same intel slot as he did during active duty. He left the Navy as a lieutenant.
Retired Navy public affairs officer Zip Upham, right, gives a tour at Naval Air Station Fallon.
MILITARY TO CIVILIAN
For the first time since officer candidate school, Upham traded the Navy uniform for work apparel. He worked for Ron Evans Construction helping to pour concrete foundations, but the call for him to become involved with NAS Fallon enticed him to apply for the vacant public affairs officer position after Anne McMillin, now Churchill County’s spokesperson, left for Tennessee in 2000.
“The Navy wanted someone from Fallon, and I had already been here for a decade,” recounted Upham, who then attended a 10-week public affairs officer course at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade south of Baltimore, Maryland.
Also during the latter part of the 1990s and extending in the first half of the 2000s, a leukemia cluster sweeping the Lahontan Valley, and the disconcerting news made most who were stationed in Fallon uneasy. Keeping on top of the cluster was as tough as working with the media on aircraft mishaps that usually resulted in the death of a pilot or crews.
“Flying is a dangerous job,” Upham pointed out, especially when his position required him to release information in a timely but sensitive manner to both local and national media.
Upham said the aircraft mishaps tend to be accidents.
The first major air crash during Upham’s tenure occurred in early May 2007 when five sailors aboard an SH-60F helicopter flying a nighttime mission out of NAS Fallon struck a high-voltage transmission line in a mountainous region 10 miles west of Austin.at night.
During a major earthquake drill in Northern Nevada in June 2008, Upham reported two jets collided east of Fallon near Middlegate. While personnel continued with the earthquake drill, the events of a real-world mission became part of the exercise.
The pilot of the F/A-18C Hornet based out of NAS Oceana, Virginia was killed. Upham said the two-man crew aboard the F-5 Tiger ejected safely and were rescued. Upham’s already busy schedule became busier. He said the Navy focused on the pilot’s death and taking care of the family.
“My expectation is that it'll take about a week to gather physical evidence out at the scene and it'll take a lot longer before they conclude the investigation,” Upham said after the crash.
A decade of Upham working with the media gave stability in his reporting of incidents from NAS Fallon. In a real-word situation occurring six weeks after a major training exercise involved numerous civilian and military agencies, Upham and the Navy plunged into action in Late June 2011.
At a railroad crossing south of Interstate 80 at Trinity, a tractor and double-trailer combination which is used to haul ore, collided into the California Zephyr, an Amtrak passenger training heading west toward Reno. Flames erupted, and emergency crews that were called to the crash rescued scores of passengers. Six, though, died.
“We worked with our civilian agencies and counterparts,” Upham said.
Upham’s account after the accident reported five federal fire vehicles responded to the train crash, which caused NAS Fallon to suspend flight operations.
The accident also presented challenges in the number of injured passengers that needed medical transportation from the crash site. Upham said three NAS Fallon SAR (search and rescue) helicopters were pressed into service to ferry injured passengers to area hospitals.
Less than a year later, retired Navy pilot Carroll “Lex” Lefon crashed into a building at NAS Fallon while trying to land in inclement weather. LeFon did not survive. Upham said a storm first sent the pilot from Fallon to Reno, but because of the winds, Lefon was told to return to the air station. .
An early-morning explosion in March 18, 2013, at the Hawthorne Army Depot killed seven Marines and injured seven others, all assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C. They were in Hawthorne for mortar training when a 60-mm round exploded during night training.
Upham said Navy personnel assisted a Marine casualty assistance officer by helping to fly family members of those killed and injured to Reno.
“It was difficult for the people at Hawthorne because the ammunition depot was not a training base,” Upham recalled of the situation.
One of the most challenging crashes occurred in March 2014 when a Marine pilot assigned to Fallon for training crashed near Monitor Pass, more than 140 miles east of the air station. Since it involved a pilot assigned to a base in Okinawa, a spokesman for the Navy in San Diego assumed the PIO role.
In July 2020, Cmdr. Christopher Joas, the senior flight surgeon at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC), died in a single-engine airplane crash on July 7 near Meyers, Calif. His friend Peggy Snider McGuire, a former Fallon businesswoman, died several days later.
Cmdr. Michael Patterson, right, talks to now retired NAS Fallon public information officer Zip Upham on the day the media came out to the base in late May 2022 upon the debut of the newest Top Gun movie.
PULSE OF THE COMMUNITY
Upham loved taking visitors on tours of Naval Air Station Fallon and later the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) and describing their respective mission to groups, individuals and journalists who descended upon the military installation. Nothing, though, compared to the filming the movie Top Gun: Maverick. For five weeks in 2019, the film crew called Fallon home.
“During their five weeks of training, they filmed some around the base, in the jets, hangars … lots of people,, lots going on. They brought in their own equipment,” Upham described.
During the filming, he said about 170 people associated with the movie arrived in Fallon in including actor Tom Cruise, whom Upham met. Also at the air station was director Joseph Kosinski, and Upham, NAWDC personnel and pilots and Kosinski sat through many of the briefings.
“Shooting in Fallon was not your typical set,” Upham said. “The Navy wouldn’t let the actors fly the aircraft.”
Instead, Navy pilots flew F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets with actors in the back seat facing a small camera. During the filming of the movie, Upham also said a Top Gun class was actually in session.
“The OPS (operations) team, Top Gun and NAWDC were able to do that (have classes) while filming the movie,” Upham said.
With the movie crew’s time in the area, he said the desert scenes were filmed east of Fallon and the canyon filming occurred at Green and Kingston canyons south of Austin. The airport scene was shot in the Sierra Nevada at the South Lake Tahoe Airport.
“We had an aerial team from Panama that worked well with the Navy team,” Upham added.
The initial opening scenes from the movie were shot at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lakes near Ridgecrest, Calif. Oher scenes included San Diego and Whidbey Island, Wash.
The finished movie was released in May 2022, significantly delayed because of the restrictions placed by COVID-19.
The filming of the movie was one of the first times retired Capt. Evan Morrison saw Upham deal with people and groups from outside the military community. As time passed until Morrison retired in 2022, he saw the importance of Upham’s relationship with the city, county and the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe.
“I hated to see him go,” Morrison said. “No matter who they bring in, there will be a gap.”
Morrison said he was in awe of all the relationships Upham had developed.
“He knew everyone,” Morrison added, tongue-in-cheek.
According to Morrison, Upham helped the base commander establish relationships outside the work environment.
“He was instrumental anytime I had to speak,” Morrison said. “He knew all the pitfalls which was huge.”
During the COVID restrictions, Morrison said the base had to disseminate information often and accurately. He described how the information changed constantly locally and with the Department of Defense.
Likewise, the former air station commander, retired Capt. Leif Steinbaugh, said he will always envision Upham as that iconic figure dressed with a tie and wearing his fedora.
“It was great working with him,” Steinbaugh said.” He knew everything he needed to know about the base … I didn’t have to worry about day-to-day things. He took the ball.”
Steinbaugh said Upham was great for leading VIPs on tours or meetings at NAS Fallon.
Likewise, longtime friend Kristopher Haugh, the public affairs officer at Naval Air Facility El Centro, said he appreciates Upham’s professionalism and his ability to work with photographers when they visit the air station.
“I’ve known Zip for about 21, 22 years, and we have a similar mindset,” Haugh said.
Both public affairs officers share the same vision for presenting the Navy in a good light.
“Zip understands the importance of the lighting to go out in the morning or evening,” Haugh said, adding the visiting journalist and their publishers make them look good.
“He gets them in the right spot and the right time,” Haugh added.
Also, Upham assists Haugh every March for a week when the Blue Angels open the season with their first show at El Centro. Haugh said Upham is passionate about the jets.
Upham may have closed one chapter on his career, but he’s keeping another open with his community involvement. Over the years he’s proved there’s more than seven days in a week.
A longtime Rotarian and former president of the Fallon Rotary Club, Upham finds his involvement with the Churchill County Search and Rescue as very enjoyable and for more than a decade, he has served years as a trustee for the Churchill County Library. On any given performance at the Churchill Arts Council, patrons will find Upham and Nancy selling tickets.
And on other occasions, Upham’s friend will see him donned in kilts to celebrate Burns Night in honor of Robert Burns, a famous Scottish poet who lived in the late 1700s.
Upham has been one of the faces of the Fallon Cantaloupe Festival as its chairman, while Adrienne Snow has been the executive director for more than two years.
Zip Upham is a member of the Churchill Library Association.
PART OF THE STORY
Like so many other tragic incidents at NAS Fallon, Upham mourned yet ensured the media was kept informed. Sometimes, though, Upham couldn’t help being part of the story
Upham was shaken by the death of Capt. Rhinehart “Rhino” Wilke IV, who died in 2020 after a valiant battle against cancer. Rhino had served as commanding officer at Fallon from 2010-2013, but he first competed a tour from 1996-1998 as a Top Gun instructor. Before they knew each other and married, Rhinehart’s wife Melody had worked as an intel specialist second class with Upham and then a two-year tour with Lockheed Martin, a base contractor..
“He had been out to Fallon, but she didn’t marry until she left the Navy,” Upham recounted, adding they tied the knot at Lake Tahoe.
Upham said Rhino became a good friend and they would go skiing together.
“He was a great friend,” Upham said. “He made skiing look easy.”
Melody Wilke said the friendship grew during the years.
“We’ve shared skiing trips, many family dinners, Fallon Rotary events, Robert Burns Night, too many recreational activities to mention, numerous Tailhook conventions together, but mostly I’m thankful for our continued friendship over the years,” she said. “Even though we may have many miles between us now, if I saw him tomorrow, it would be like we never lost touch.”
During Rhino’s fight with cancer, Upham kept in touch with the family.
“He was a dear friend to Rhino over the years and even more through his cancer and passing,” Melody Wilke said. “About a month after Rhino’s death, Zip sent me the sweetest picture and message that I reflect on often. It’s friends like Zip (and Nan) that I will always treasure.”
One of Upham’s former enlisted mass communications specialists brings a similar, yet different perspective of his former boss. Over time, Joe Vincent’s favorite saying of Zip's that has stuck with him is, “If you're not doing anything, don't do it here.”
“Zip really taught me to enjoy shore duty and take the time I needed to take care of myself and my family,” Vincent recounted. “He gave me the freedom to execute my job with just enough nudging to make sure he got what he needed out of me.”
Vincent said if he didn't know or wasn't familiar with something in the area, they would hop into Upham’s Audi and explore. Upham was quick to introduce Vincent to the right people on the base.
“It wouldn't be long before I added a new experience under my belt,” Vincent said. “I was always amazed at his knowledge of local politics and customs, thanks in no small part to his constant involvement not only in Rotary and the Cantaloupe Festival, but many other local Fallon and Churchill events. He always had a good feel of the pulse of the area, not only in how it related to the base, but how things would impact the local community.
Vincent said he considers Upham the opposite of a selfish boss because he would listen to his feedback and address any needs. In a tribute to Upham, Vincent said he met “many wonderful people” and made a few lifelong friends from the countless public tours and photo calls that Upham organized and led.
“I will tell you that Zip's leadership inspired me to change the type and style of my own leadership,” Vincent pointed out. “I strive to be as flexible and understanding as he is. I try to provide the same balance of guidance and freedom that he gave me while I was there.”
Vincent has been gone from NAS Fallon for five years. When the mass communication specialist received orders to the Navy Southwest Region, he was able to work with Upham but in a different capacity.
“Every time I make the trip back out that way, there are always new memories created and fun times had,” Vincent said. “There is no doubt that the Zip is leaving large shoes to be filled by the next PAO. Although I have little doubt that Zip will continue to be a voice of reason for the local area and air station long after he officially retires. Fallon is lucky to have him.”