- Written by 50plus LIFE 50plus LIFE
Col. Robert D. Wilcox
Since we began 50plus LIFE, formerly 50plus Senior News, more than two decades ago, the publication has gone through many changes; it has grown and evolved in both its look and its content.
For nearly 17 years, 50plus LIFE had at least one constant: Col. Robert D. Wilcox’s monthly column, Salute to a Veteran, in which he interviewed a local veteran and recorded their story of service.
It is with heavy hearts we commemorate the passing of Col. Wilcox—always just “Bob” to us—on April 2, 2017. At age 95, his was a life long and well lived.
Although Bob interviewed veterans from various wars and military campaigns, the majority of his columns are profiles of World War II veterans. Salute to a Veteran was consistently the most popular recurring column among the readers of 50plus LIFE, and for good reason.
From October 1999 to August 2016, Bob—himself a World War II veteran of the Air Force Reserve—preserved in finely written word the firsthand wartime experiences of 201 veterans.
Through his writing, Bob captured not just the facts of each veteran’s story, but also his or her personal reflections of their time in the armed forces: their feelings, their hopes and fears, and their priceless eyewitness accounts.
This was an invaluable service to his community of veterans, to the readers of 50plus LIFE, to the vets themselves, and to their friends and families. Through Salute to a Veteran, Bob preserved these veterans’ historical legacies. But perhaps more importantly, for each veteran’s family, Bob documented their loved one’s strength, sacrifice, and service to country.
In summer 2016, we at 50plus LIFE had the great pleasure of presenting Bob with the culmination of his years of service to our publication: a soft-cover book of his work. Salute to Our Veterans: Selected Profiles of Military Service comprised 50 of Bob’s veteran profiles, selected by him for inclusion.
While we grieve the loss of our friend and member of the 50plus LIFE family, we are pleased to finally share Bob’s own story of his time in military service, which he asked us to save for this occasion.
We honor Col. Robert D. Wilcox for his service to country and community. We thank him for enriching the pages of 50plus LIFE and for his unwavering commitment to chronicling the selfless military service of the Greatest Generation, of which he himself was a part.
By Col. Robert D. Wilcox
I joined the Army Reserve in 1942 in my freshman year at Rhode Island State College (now Rhode Island University).
I was called into the Army on Feb. 28, 1943, my 21st birthday. I lucked out and was selected to become an aviation cadet.
After getting my pilot wings and commission on April 15, 1944, I went on to become a B-17 pilot in Florida. There I was given an eight-man crew that I flew to Wales over the northern route via Goose Bay, Labrador; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Valley, Wales.
The crew then went by train and truck to the 452nd Bomb Group in Deopham Green, England. There, the crew had practice missions and further training for combat. No pilot was able to fly his crew into combat, however, until he had flown at least one combat mission as co-pilot for an experienced crew.
So, on Jan. 17, 1945, at 4 a.m., a sergeant woke me by tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “You’re up, lieutenant.”
After meeting the crew I was to fly with that day, there was breakfast and the briefing on the day’s mission: to attack the U-boat pens at Hamburg, Germany.
The pilot I was to fly with was 1st Lt. Ira Smith, who was flying his last mission before returning to the U.S. He let me do all the flying as we formed up with many other bomb groups in a mighty 1,000-plane force and flew across the North Sea.
As we approached the coast of Germany, we donned our flak jackets, and as we approached the IP (the Initial Point, after which the planes could take no evasive action), Smitty said, “OK, Wilcox, I’ll take it from here. Just keep your eyes in the cockpit, and especially keep an eye on the oil pressure.”
This was crucial, because if an engine were hit and needed to be feathered (where the blades were rotated in the hub so the airstream wouldn’t turn them and create drag), there was very little time to feather it before losing the hydraulic fuel to do that.
Now, as we approached the target, we could feel the flak exploding all around us. It felt like someone was beating on the wings with a sledgehammer. I couldn’t resist looking down at Hamburg and seeing the great city below through the black bursts of flak that filled the sky.
When I quickly looked back and checked the oil pressure, I saw the oil pressure on No. 3 engine dropping quickly. So, I yelled, “Feathering three,” and I went through the several-step procedure that feathered that prop.
Then we got hit on the No. 1 engine, and it began to stream black smoke as Smith cut it back to half power. We had now dropped our bombs, and the tail gunner started calling tracking flak, “Flak, six o’clock level.”
Then a bit louder, “Flak, six o’clock level.”
Then louder, as the flak moved closer, “Flak, six o’clock level.”
Then shouting, “FLAK, SIX O’CLOCK LEVEL!”
At which point, Smith, with an oath, pulled the wheel back and rose well above the formation. A burst of flak then set our No. 2 engine on fire, and Smith pushed the wheel forward, dove down through the hole in the formation, and, after several thousand feet, was able to blow out the flames.
It took me several tries before No. 2 could be feathered, but it finally feathered. In the meantime, the crew was working to drop the ball turret, which was heavy and created a lot of drag.
Smith had given the order to throw everything out of the airplane that would move. I remember my reaction when the engineer tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Your flak jacket, sir.” But I climbed out of it, and he threw it overboard with all the others.
I was now flying the airplane again, and at our slow speed, the bomber stream above us was passing us by. Over the town of Lübeck, the bomber stream turned west toward England … and so did we, lagging behind. We were holding 120 mph, trading airspeed for altitude, with Lübeck on the leading edge of our wing.
Twenty minutes later, it was on the trailing edge, so I called our navigator and said, “Hey, Nick, where are we going to hit the ground?”
A few minutes later, he called Smith and said, “Smitty, we’re going to hit the ground halfway to the front lines!”
At once, Smitty said, “That’s all she wrote,” and kicked the plane around to head northeast toward Sweden.
Now we had the wind behind us, so our ground speed picked up from 40 to 200 mph. But we had no maps to Sweden, and the visibility was terrible. We headed across the Baltic Sea in what we believed to be the general direction of Sweden.
When we finally came over land, we were down to about 2,500 feet and were being fired at. Could it be Sweden? It didn’t seem likely. Then two fighters came in on a head-on attack.
When our navigator was about to give them a burst from our chin turret (the only guns that couldn’t be moved), one of the planes did an Immelmann and sat down on our wing. It had three crowns on his tail, and he motioned to us to follow him, which we did, and then we landed at Malmo on the very southern tip of Sweden. We would never have found the airfield without his help.
Smith and I examined the damage to the airplane before joining the rest of the crew, who were in the terminal, being fed sandwiches and real milk. When a Swedish officer came by, I asked him why they had fired at a B-17 in our condition as we came over the coast.
“Did they hit you?” he asked.
“They sure did,” I replied.
Shaking his head slowly, he said, “That’s very unusual.” Pause. “They often fire, but they very seldom hit anything.”
Four months later, the war ended, and we returned to the U.S. Ten months later, I returned to Europe for three years and flew the first two weeks of the Berlin Airlift. On one of those missions, I came closer to losing my life than I did in combat. But that’s another story.
I stayed in the Air Force Reserve, where my mobilization assignment at the Pentagon was chief, internal information for the Air Force before I retired as a colonel in April 1974.
Over those wonderful years of flying, I found that there were many ways to kill yourself flying an airplane—combat being only one of the more obvious.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Col. Wilcox’s memory may be made to Lancaster Chapter MOAA (memo: High School Scholarship), P.O. Box 5031, Lancaster, PA 17606.