Tuesday, November 18, 2014

TOP STORY >> WWII bomber pilot Lt. Col. Wilmer Plate

Leader staff writer

Retired Lt. Col. Wilmer Plate of Jacksonville, a Second World War bomber pilot, last month published an autobiography, “The Storm Clouds of War,” about his combat experience flying B-24 Liberators during WWII.

Plate, 95, flew 31 missions with the 489th Bomb Group’s 10-men crew over Germany and France from May 30 to Sept. 27, 1944. Two of those missions were on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when their plane returned to England with 300-plus holes. It did not fly again.

Plate spoke about his life and shared some war stories last Thursday night at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History.

He was born on a farm in Bennett, Iowa, in 1919. His family moved to New Mexico as homesteaders and later settled in Crane, Texas, running a dairy farm.

In 1941, the family had to sell when a competitor began delivering pasteurized milk to groceries and businesses.

Plate was 25, married with a child and unemployed when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in June 1942. Plate was already a pilot flying small civilian planes.

In the 1930s, a pilot landed a plane on a gravel strip near Plate’s farm. He let the pilot use the runway in exchange for flying lessons. The pilot came by once a week and Plate eventually got his pilot license.

Plate went into the service in the aviation maintenance program in Tulsa, Okla., when he read a notice about the military needing pilots.

Plate passed the air cadet program in October 1942 without having the required high school diploma.

He also spoke about his pilot training at the museum.

“It was the best experience I had ever had. It was a PT-19, an open cockpit. The instructor taxied it out to the runway and said put your hand on the throttles and controls. We moved, and the tail comes up. We leave the ground. It doesn’t get any better than this,” Plate said.

He said the next best thing was learning to fly a B-24 at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas. It was the biggest airplane in operation at that time.

“You get to take off. You push in the throttle. The adrenaline kicks in. The heart rate goes up. Soon you feel the lightness in the controls as you leave the ground. That is living,” Plate said.

Plate recalled flying in from a mission over Germany during the war. The men had flown for five hours. They were relaxed, descending from high altitude just over the English coast. The gunners had unloaded and broken down their guns. Plate was three miles from the base and heard, “WHACK.”

“I look out the left wing and there is a black flak shell that went off 50 feet from my wingtip,” Plate said.

He had to take evasive action and get out of the traffic pattern. The navigator noted where the flak came from, and it was from England.

After they landed and debriefed, Plate had got on a bicycle wearing his best uniform and went to the gate. He spoke with the commander of the station and asked if he was responsible for firing an anti-aircraft shell at a B-24. He said yes, and that it was a training exercise to track altitude, distance and direction.

Plate told him that he was in the bomber and it upset his nerves. This was a warning.

“If it happens again, I’m going to reload those 50-caliber machine guns on the plane. When I get through, there won’t be enough room to hide a bicycle,” Plate said.

“I never saw flak in that area again,” Plate said.

While in England, Plate and a bombardier met the Spindlers family at a local pub. The Spindlers invited them to their house one night for a meal. The Spindlers prepared a meal with their rations, a few cubes of meat, a couple of vegetables and a piece of bread.

“When we got back home to base, we raided the commissary and came up with all sorts of good things for them. From then on, when we came down (to the Spindlers), we brought some with us.

“These people invited us to stay at their house. We spent the nights sometimes. They were very nice. They lived directly under the flight path coming in to the air field. If we were out at the pub one night, they knew we were flying the next day.

“When the airplanes began flying in, (Mrs. Spindler) would go out in the back yard with her two children. When I flew over, I’d flash my landing light. They’d say, ‘OK girls let’s go in; the boys will be down soon,’” Plate said.

Plate then spoke about the importance of the crew chiefs. They were the ones who maintained and kept the airplanes safe while the crews were flying them.

“They don’t get any credit for that, and that’s not right,” Plate said.

“The crew chiefs would meet the pilots and crew when they came out and follow us around the airplane during pre-flight so we didn’t miss anything,” he recalled.

“Some of them would even follow us up into the cockpit to make sure we started the engines properly before we advanced the throttle. They were very protective of their airplanes,” he said.

“When we got the signal to taxi out, some would follow the plane out on their bicycle until we got to the take-off point. They would stand there and watch and see if we cleared the trees at the far end of the runway,” Plate said.

He continued, “When they knew when we were coming back, they would head to the runway and wait for the airplane to come in. They would stand there to salute them.

“If the airplane did not come in, they would sometimes stand out there for an hour hoping it might struggle back — and they would hang their heads and walk slow back to their revetment. Their airplane didn’t make it,” Plate said in a hushed tone.

Plate got out of the service in August 1945. He returned to the service in 1947, enlisting as an aircraft mechanic. He retired from the Air Force Reserves in 1971 after a 30-year career.

Plate and his wife, Helen, moved from Oklahoma to Cabot in 2006 and to Jacksonville in 2008 to be near family. Plate said another reason was the Little Rock VA Hospital had better services than the Oklahoma City VA Hospital. His wife passed away in 2011. They were married for 71 years. They have two daughters, Mary and Eleanor.

Plate was awarded many service medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit and the Purple Heart.