Glenwood Springs veteran still flying around at 90
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — As a reporter walks into one of the hangars at the municipal airport on a recent Saturday, a spry, 138-pound man just a decade shy of his centennial year casually stops polishing the wooden propeller on an aircraft he built himself more than a decade ago, and shambles forward to shake hands.
Responding to a question, Phil Wilmot of Carbondale gets a big grin on his face and declares proudly, “Yes, I built it, and it flies. Nobody was more surprised than me.”
As he speaks, his eyes wander fondly over the lines of the plane, a Van’s RV-4 single-engine, tandem-style two-seater, a kit plane designed by Richard VanGrunsven that some say is the second most popular kit airplane in the world today. The most popular, according to the common wisdom, is its now-discontinued cousin, the RV-6, which has side-by-side seats as opposed to the front-to-back RV-4.
“It flies just like a fighter,” continues Wilmot, although his plane does not have the cannons, the bombs and the rockets, the six .50-cal. machine guns that made his fighter squadron more than a match for the Japanese Zeros.
Motioning toward the Fred Felix-made propeller, Wilmot says, “This is an experimental propeller, and I love it.
Asked for the name of his plane, he pauses for a second and replies with another grin, “I call it The Thing.”
Over the Pacific
Wilmot, 90, was a World War II fighter pilot and is one of the few surviving members of the Blue Devils, a squadron of fighter planes (formally named VMF-451) that was active in the Pacific theater, flying Chance Vought F4U Corsair fighters.
He and the Blue Devils were Marine fighter pilots flying missions from aircraft carriers, in the Blue Devils’ case an Essex-class carrier named Bunker Hill, toward the end of the war. They were part of the air attack against Japan in early 1945, when the U.S. was planning to invade the island empire in order to end the war.
Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Wilmot was eager to fly from an early age, and he got his chance when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the late 1930s founded the Civilian Pilots Training program to build up the nation’s stock of pilots for both civilian and military work.
He ultimately signed up with the Marines and was called up for active duty in November 1942, and saw some action in the early military operations in the Solomon Islands.
Among his tasks as a fighter pilot was to fly in defensive formation over U.S. Navy task forces, to protect them from attacks by roving squadrons of Zeros.
“There are always some around,” he said of the Zeros, noting that the Japanese pilots would attack anything they could find.
“If you’d get separated from your guys, they’d drop down on you,” he recalled. “They were deadly aircraft.”
His squadron also was assigned, toward the end of the war, to protect battleships and other ships from kamikaze attacks, in which Japanese pilots would fly their planes directly into the target ships, dying along with anyone they killed on board.
“They gave us a pretty hard time,” he said of the kamikaze pilots.
Toward the end of the war, on May 11, 1945, he said, the Bunker Hill fell victim to one such attack.
“We got hit by two suicide planes,” he described, explaining that the first one to hit took out a room where the Navy pilots also serving on the Bunker Hill were preparing to take off on a mission.
“We lost all the Navy guys,” Wilmot said, “and the hangar deck was a sea of fire.”
One of the crew jumped overboard, as Wilmot and his squadron buddy, Charles “Chucker” Hudson, went to grab hoses and try to put out the flames.
As they entered one burning area, he said, the deck was covered with burned personnel.
“It smelled like pork, sweet smelling pork, all these cooked sailors. I’d never seen anything like that,” he recalled.
At the same time, one of the ship’s commanders, who Wilmot knew only as “Beano” Dyson, also grabbed a hose to fight the fire.
Although he did not like Dyson much, Wilmot remembered, “That guy, he was so brave. He grabbed a hose and went right in that fire. I wasn’t going into that fire.”
He noted that when he signed up for military duty, “I thought I was John Wayne when I got out there, but I found out I was Walter Mitty. I was always scared.”
When he told his pal, Chucker, about that fear, Chucker replied, “Hell, Pots [Wilmot’s nickname], we were all scared.”
That day, Wilmot said, the Bunker Hill was severely damaged, and lost all its planes and 400 men, who were buried at sea the next day.
Tearing up a bit, Wilmot gazed at the floor and kind of sighed the words, “400 guys,” then shook his head as if to clear it.
Later that year, Wilmot recounted, he went on an air-combat mission that turned out to be the only time he actually shot down an enemy plan. It was during an attack on Tokyo Harbor on Feb. 16, 1945, one of an increasing number of air attacks intended to soften up the Japanese for a planned invasion intended to end the war in the Pacific.
The attack lasted two days, according to published accounts, and the Blue Devils performed well enough to earn a Presidential Unit Citation for that mission and missions flown later against other targets in Japan.
After the war, Wilmot went to school to become a dentist, part of which was a tour of duty in the Korean War, watching out after the soldiers’ teeth rather than exchanging fire with the enemy soldiers.
“It’s much better being a pilot,” he said with a smile.
From there, he said, he went on to a 37-year career as a dentist in California, where he and his wife, Mary, raised two kids, Leslie and Mark.
Mark got into surfing and moved to Hawaii, Wilmot said, while Leslie moved to Colorado, got married and started a family of her own.
Phil and Mary Wilmot moved to this area about two decades ago to be near Leslie and her family, and he seemed momentarily confused when asked if he has any plans for Veterans Day.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, on Thanksgiving I’m going to cook the turkey, and the girls are going to tell me how.”
Never cooked a turkey before? he was asked.
“No,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye, “but I never built an airplane before, either.”
He continues to fly once a week or so, including occasional aerobatic practice turns over a remote area south of Rifle, despite occasional groundings by doctors. But as long as he can pass the medical tests he plans to keep taking to the air.
In a 2008 story in The Valley Journal, Wilmot told a reporter, “I’d like to keep flying at least until I’m 90,” a feat he has now accomplished, along with passing on his passion for flying to his grandson.
“I’m a marked man,” he said, knowing one day he will not be able to fly any more.
But for now, he said, “It’s really the only thrilling, exciting thing I do. And when I get in that airplane, I’m young again.”
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