World War II Veteran Wilt Gave 26 Years To Military
Editor’s Note: The following is the fifth and final story in a series about Fulton County veterans who fought in World War II that will be published each week in the “News” through Veterans Day.
With the Allied Forces rallying against Germany and Japan, McConnellsburg resident Bernard “Barney” Wilt answered the nation’s call to duty in World War II on December 9, 1940, a call that would span nearly three decades to the middle of the Vietnam War.
At the age of 21, and at the urging of a friend, Wilt gave up his steel mill job in Buffalo, N.Y., making ball-peen hammer heads. He and his buddy, Ed, enlisted with the United States Army. However, the enlistment of his friend was extremely short-lived as Ed was unable to pass the physical due to vision problems, thereby leaving Wilt on his own to travel to Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Ala., for basic training.
“There wasn’t much training involved,” admitted Wilt, who said there was only one B-17 heavy bomber on-site when he arrived later at Fort Douglas, several miles east of Salt Lake City, Utah. With 50 guys standing around patiently waiting their turn, Wilt said the training often consisted of taking turns wiping off grease and oil that had accumulated on the plane. An aptitude test would reveal that Wilt was “pretty fast screwing together nuts and bolts.” The talent earned him the position of flight mechanic with the 8th Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Initially the group was to take a more southern route in making their way to England, but a break in the weather resulted in their plane heading northward and making pit stops to refuel in Goose Bay, Newfoundland, and Reykjavik, Iceland. Their final destination was north of London near the town of Cambridge where a total of 18 B-17s were awaiting oil changes, new spark plugs, refu- eling and bullet hole patching before inspection. During his time as a mechanic and later as a line chief, Wilt recalled losing “quite a few” B-17s to enemy fire.
Line chiefs, such as Wilt, had access to bicycles as well as a Jeep that would carry them around their base to check on the progress of plane maintenance. The Jeep was also handy in beelining it to the mess hall for meals, said Wilt.
Bicycles weren’t only for use on base, though. As automobiles were commandeered for the war effort, London police would often resort to riding bicycles to chase down suspected criminals. One such chase happened to involve a fellow airman from Montana, who, after a night of celebrating, hijacked a Guinness beer wagon pulled by four fancy horses, Wilt stated. Obviously missing his Western roots and having imbibed maybe one too many Guinnesses himself, the airman’s joy ride, on a wagon full of 50-gallon barrels of beer, led police on a chase, careening around the intersections of London. Whether the cowboy was able to wobble back to base on his own accord or was apprehended by police is unknown, but Wilt is sure that cowboy just “couldn’t resist those horses.”
With the bombings wiping out a lot of London, Wilt said those visiting the city on weekend passes had to be especially careful during blackouts. Unable to use even the smallest light to guide their way out of the city and through the streets, individuals could easily find themselves in the basement of a bombed-out building treading water that had filled up in passing rain.
“You had to be careful where you were going, especially if you had a beer or two in you,” said Wilt.
During his 2 1/2 years overseas, Wilt also managed to hitch rides from London to Paris on a military transport following the liberation of France. At that time it wasn’t uncommon for tank platoons, one of which was headed by a classmate of a mechanic in Wilt’s unit, to locate where the Nazis kept their money and cash reserves as they pushed the German forces out of each town they passed through. Just as depicted in the 1970s film “Kelly’s Heroes,” tanks would blow the door off said bank and liberate enough Nazi cash for some first-class entertainment when they finally made it back to Paris. During one weekend visit, Wilt and his buddy joined the tank driver in a Parisian café. He says they started with a case of champagne and two buckets of ice – all paid for with a stack of repatriated French francs that had been liberated from the Germans by the Allies.
Wilt said the money had to be used as only your paycheck could be sent home. “They shook you down before you left to make sure you didn’t have any,” he added.
Wilt, a native of the Pittsburgh area, returned home in 1945 but had 30 days to re-enlist, which sounded like a better prospect than spending his time making hammer heads in the mills. Given the option of traveling across the country selling war bonds as part of the crew of the Memphis Belle, the B-17 Flying Fortress that completed 25 combat missions and inspired two motion pictures, Wilt instead took a permanent posting in Washington, D.C. From Boling Field to National Airport and then to Andrews Air Force Base, he would be placed in charge of quality control for maintenance of Air Force One.
Wilt recalls President Harry S. Truman working his way through the line of men and checking their work on the planes in the terminal. Unlike the security measures of today, security back then consisted of a rope surrounding a plane and a man sitting at a desk.
During his 26 years of military service that ended in 1968, Wilt was among the second group of sergeants to achieve the designation chief master sergeant, which is the “highest ranking, noncommissioned officer in the Air Force.” The first group to achieve that rank, only two weeks prior, were all sergeants serving in the Pentagon, Wilt stated. At the Mc- Connellsburg American Legion, where he can still be found today enjoying fellowship and a good meal, Wilt is among a very small group of Air Force “chiefs” listed on the membership rolls. He remains one of the oldest active members there.