NEW WILMINGTON — The nation of France officially regards Wallie King as a hero who helped liberate their country from Nazi oppression during World War II.
But the New Wilmington resident sees himself as just a guy who wanted to fly airplanes.
The 97-year-old veteran of the United States Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the Air Force, enlisted in 1942, when he was 18. King was fascinated by aviation and knew he would be drafted, so he decided to volunteer specifically to become a pilot.
“I decided I’d rather fight in the sky than on the ground,” King said.
The Cortland, Ohio, native was called up for training in January 1943, along with others who were accepted for pilot training.
First, he was sent to a base in Alabama for four weeks of standard Army training, which mostly focused on marching, discipline, uniform presentation and physical training. King was then sent to Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport, La., for about a month.
The time in Centenary College comprised topics including first aid, physics, engineering, Morse code, and history. As someone who had worked on the railroads around people using the “dot-and-dash” based telegraph language, some of the instruction was somewhat familiar — but other classes, such as history and the rise of nationalism, and the part they played in World War II, were more informative, King said.
“I’ll never forget the course, because the professor was a gifted lecturer who’d walk around the classroom and talk without any notes,” King said. “It went back to the Hapsburg Empire and Prussian influence, and how Europe had been at war for centuries over there, so World War II was really the culmination of that.”
King then spent three months at San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center for more non-flying training where trainees were classified as appropriate as pilots, bombardiers or navigators, although most were needed as pilots.
His first chance to train in the air came in Oklahoma, where trainees practiced on a wooden trainer aircraft called a PT-19. There were about six trainees for each instructor, who taught the trainees until the instructor felt the trainee was able to fly solo.
But the trainees had to reach that level within 10 hours, King said.
“I never second-guessed my skills as a pilot. I soloed in six hours,” King said.
In the 10 weeks at Oklahoma, the trainees spent more than 60 hours flying, practicing how to land, recover from a stall and dueling, with more than 30 hours a week in a classroom, where they learned topics such as how to identify Axis and Allied aircraft, King said.
“They had actual photographs of the airplanes, and they’d flash the picture for a few seconds, sometimes a frontal view, sometimes a side view, and you had to recognize the plane,” he said.
After the 10 weeks, the trainees were sent to Coffeyville, Kansas, where they learned how to fly the BT-13, a heavier trainer. There, King learned to use landmarks for navigation and use instruments to fly at night.
“With the lack of a visual horizon at night, especially during the winterttime in Kansas, you really learn to rely on your instruments,” he said.
At that point, the trainees were selected for either single-engine advanced flying school or multi-engine advanced flying school, which basically meant fighters or bombers, respectively. Though he thought being a bomber pilot would be more interesting, King said he was assigned to single-engine school.
“My instructor, Bob Alexander, was from Fowler, Ohio, and he said to me, ‘King, you’re too good a pilot to fly those things,’” he said, referring to the bombers.
King was sent to Eagle Pass, Texas, where he was trained for nine-and-a-half weeks until his graduation in the middle of March, 1944. After graduation, he received his wings, was promoted to second lieutenant and was allowed one week to spend at home with his family.
“My family was probably fearing for my safety but I wasn’t concerned, because we’d been training and focused from the time we entered flying training to the time we got out,” he said.
King spent two more weeks at Eagle Pass training on P-40 Warhawks, then spent some time at Tallahassee, Fla., until he was sent to England to train on P-51 Mustang fighters. After about three weeks in England, King flew over the beachhead at Normandy, where Allied forces had successfully invaded earlier that year on June 6 — D-Day.
King had been initially assigned to a P-51 group in the 9th Air Force that was deactivated after a couple weeks and he was transferred to a group of P-47 Thunderbolts in Le Mans, France. Then in mid-September, King flew his first combat mission with the 9th Air Force’s 406th Fighter Group.
Unlike the fighters such as the P-51, Thunderbolts were used to support the Allied ground forces and prevent Axis supplies or reinforcements from arriving at the front lines. Though they didn’t have the range to reach the German capitol of Berlin like the P-51s, the Thunderbolts were sturdier and carried a 500-pound bomb on each wing, and four high-velocity rockets, King said.
Due to safety concerns, the Thunderbolts had to drop whatever ordinance they didn’t use into a lake before landing, as was the case for King’s first mission.
“That ended up being the only time I ever jettisoned the bombs into a lake,” King said.
Instead of attacking German soldiers, King said the Thunderbolts’ targets included vehicles such as trucks, tanks, trains or marshaling yards, although by the end of 1944, the Germans moved only at night.
“I think there was only one time I saw German soldiers, I was strafing a military vehicle and they were running to get behind cover,” he said. “That was the only time I ever saw any soldiers, and I don’t think I hit any of them.”
Since the Thunderbolts’ mission was also to support Allied infantry, that also meant sometimes attacking German forces directly. However, the Germans usually took up positions in wooded areas and thus the pilots never actually saw the German soldiers, King said.
Pilots on the ground with Allied infantry would help direct the Thunderbolts, relaying information and providing areas to attack, even if the Germans were unseen to aircraft overhead, King said.
During his time in France, King flew 75 combat missions, including close air support for Allied forces during the Siege of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.
The night before the siege, King remembered he and some other pilots left a movie theater and seeing multiple trucks full of paratroopers lined up, apparently ready to go on maneuvers. By the next morning, King said the group found out the 101st Airborne had been cut off by German forces in the city of Bastogne.
“We walked into a room at 10 a.m. the next morning and they had this map with a red line, so that you could tell where friendly troops were at — and Bastogne had a red line around it,” he said.
During the siege, King’s group often provided close air support to Allied forces, strafing and driving back German forces during the day after they had advanced at night. Other times, the Thunderbolts would strafe flak positions so that transport aircraft could drop off supplies to the isolated forces in Bastogne.
“The ground was snow-covered, and I thought ‘those parachutes aren’t even landing in Bastogne,’” he said. “But once the supplies dropped, it was like a bunch of ants, the soldiers down there in their positions would pick up the chutes and take them into town.”
Eventually the siege around Bastogne was lifted, and King was given a few weeks off in England. When he returned, the group was transferred to Belgium to support the Allied push across northern Germany. This included a mission in mid-March of 1945 where the group had to attack flak positions along the Rhine River, allowing Allied paratroopers to deploy in Operation Varsity.
During that mission to attack anti-aircraft positions, King said he lost his wingman and the squadron commander in what he called a “wild few hours.”
“We knew that on every dive-bombing mission we were gonna get flak, but you just didn’t think about the flak, you concentrated on what you’re doing,” he said. “You’d roll over at 10,000 feet at full power, straight down, release your bombs at 1,000 feet and get out of there as quickly as you could.”
However, it was King’s 75th mission, on April 18, 1944, that he would always remember.
While riding out to the field where the planes were stationed, King jokingly asked the group’s temporary captain, Dutch Schultz, if he could quit since it would be his 75th mission, to which Schultz told him “This can be your last mission.”
By this time, the Soviet Army had surrounded Berlin and there didn’t seem to be nearly as many combat missions, King said.
During the mission though, King was looking at a large German artillery piece on railroad cars and was hit by light flak — causing his plane to catch on fire. Not able to reach the Elbe River, where American forces had stopped, King was forced to bail out over enemy territory.
King, who was already sitting on the plane’s main fuel tank, jettisoned the canopy and detached his oxygen mask before an explosion could “blow me out,” he said.
“You just took what came as it happened,” he said.
Suffering a broken leg and burns on his arms, wrists, lower legs and face, King parachuted into a group of armed German civilians, who shot at his parachute on the way down and attacked him once he landed beating him with sticks and shouting.
Ironically, Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, personnel — the same people who shot down his airplane — saved him from the mob, King said.
“The Luftwaffe saved my hide,” he said. “In Germany, the Luftwaffe manned the anti-aircraft guns and they were more concerned for American flyers than the army was, so the captain at the flak positions sent a couple soldiers out to get me away from the civilians.”
After his capture, King was taken to a hospital that had been bombed out and had no water, electricity or latrines, and was kept in a padded cell, presumably originally meant for insane prisoners.
“A German orderly who could speak English said to me, ‘You’re very lucky,’ and I said “I know,’ and he said, ‘No, the people in the building killed a bomber crew yesterday,’” he said.
King spent about a day in the hospital when the Germans decided to evacuate, ahead of Soviet forces closing in, and three other American prisoners carried King on a stretcher.
Since gasoline was in short supply and German vehicles were very rare at that point in the war, everyone — prisoners, wounded, or captor — had to walk. Several hours went by as King was carried on a stretcher in the rain, when a German ambulance was able to take him to a medical unit established in someone’s cottage, King said.
The Americans were kept upstairs for about a week, during which the Germans may have been launched an offensive against the Soviets, as wounded Germans and prisoners were brought downstairs for treatment, although there was no medicine or antiseptic available, even for those wounded who required amputation.
By the end of that week, the medical unit was down to King and two other American prisoners, a few orderlies and a German captain, who was in charge of the unit. One of the American prisoners could speak German and was “buddy-buddy” with the captain, but King said he suspects today the captain was a humanitarian, despite the war.
The medical unit then spent a night in a farm, a night hiding in the woods and a night in a castle, as the medical unit hid from the SS, who were reportedly executing anyone who would not fight to the last man. It was also unknown if Soviet soldiers would recognize American uniforms or insignia, especially since King’s jacket had been burned up.
But on that third night, the captain decided to take the American prisoners back to Allied lines, so they used a German ambulance to take the prisoners to a pontoon bridge on the Elbe River. Once the Americans were delivered, the captain and the ambulance returned to German lines.
Though he never learned the German captain’s name, King said he was grateful for the captain’s humanitarian nature toward the Americans, despite being on opposing sides of the war, and credited the German for potentially saving his life and those of the other captured Americans.
“Some might say he was saving his own skin by escaping to the Americans, but he was already over there on the American side when he delivered us, so he didn’t have to return to Germany. He also sent all his nurses back to the beachhead, because he didn’t want the Russians capturing these girls, so I think he had some humanitarian instincts,” King said.
Even though his time as an aviator sometimes kept him more removed from the combat on the ground compared to the infantry, King said his time as a prisoner showed him the difficulties experienced by the Germans at the war’s end, and how desperate things became for regular Germans and Nazis alike.
“I had no idea they were that desperate. There was no fuel, no food, I had nothing to eat for eight days, but they would share what they had,” he said. “It’s sad to see a country in its death throes like that, it must have been a terrible experience for the German civilians.”
After he returned to the Allied lines, King spent two months recuperating in a hospital in southern France, and eventually returned to Boston before making his way to Harrisburg, then Pittsburgh, where his family met him and spent a night with him in a hotel.
“By that time, the tension was all over, it wasn’t like I had come back from combat or anything,” he said.
King went on to get his certified public accounting degree from what was then Youngstown College — today Youngstown State University — and worked in the field until his retirement in 1983.
He has recorded his story for his children and grandchildren, and spoken to different groups about his experience during World War II, including an interview for WQED about the final days of Berlin.
A friend connected King with someone who helps World War II veterans receive the medals they earned , which led to King receiving a medal of honor from the French government.
Though the pandemic prevented an in-person ceremony, the French embassy in Washington D.C. sent King the medal — although King said he wasn’t looking for any special recognition and says what he did was only a “tiny part.”
“I didn’t do anything special to deserve the French medal of honor, it was nothing sensational I did,” he said. “I didn’t liberate France, not as much as those guys on the beach.”