West Texans are friendly folk, quick to smile, eager to help, private with their emotions, strong in their convictions. Robert Elton Wilson, Jr. was no exception. The vast Texas plains were his home, the only life he knew. That was about to change. World War II and the Army Air Corps would open a new world to this comely young man who had stayed close to his roots.
Elton’s new military name was Bob. And his new home was a tent shared with three guys from places he had only seen on a map. An uncommon friendship grew especially with the New Jersey man, Ted Weisse, a friendship so rich that Bob named his eldest son Ted. Their dangerous journey would take them to distant lands and challenging duties.
Bob Wilson was a long way from West Texas. He arrived in India on December 9, 1943. “The Hump” was a high altitude military aerial supply route between the Assam Valley in northeastern India, across northern Burma, to Yúnnán province in southwestern China. It was the primary supply line for Chinese 14th Air Force resisting the Japanese along the Burma front. Since the Japanese had control of the so-called “Burma Road”, this was the only way to get supplies to them.
Robert Elton Wilson, Jr. was born November 21, 1921 in the Hale County community of Snyder, the son of Robert Elton Wilson and Ollie B. White Wilson. He began farm work at an early age, but two years out of high school, his world drastically changed in ways he could never have foreseen.
Bob was visiting friends with his parents on a Sunday afternoon on December 7th, 1941 when they heard the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Like so many other young men at that time, Bob wanted to “do his part”. He went to the recruiting office in Lubbock and joined the Army Air Corps. He was 20 years old when he passed the tests and was off to the Aviation Cadet Program at Kelly Air Field in San Antonio. After several weeks of training, he flew his first solo flight on August 10th, 1942 in a Fairchild P-19A trainer. One of the proudest days of his life was when Bob earned his wings on February 16, 1943. He went on to train on a C-46 cargo plane in Reno, Nevada, and then was assigned a crew in Buffalo, N.Y. From there it was a long journey to his base in the Assam Province in northwest India. In Bob’s words, the mission was to “deliver all kinds of supplies to the Chinese who were cut off from the east and south by the Japanese.” He also “brought many Chinese back to India to be trained as soldiers.”
The “Hump” was a formidable set of mountains to fly over since the planes would take off from only 90 ft. sea level and quickly climb to heights of 10,000 ft. or more. Bob mentioned that “the weather was severe almost year round – winds would often exceed 100 miles per hour and it was hard to keep the plane level.” He went on to say, “the General didn’t believe in weather so we flew.” Bob noted that “sometimes heavy rain and lightning would form an electrical charge along the edge of the wings, props and nose and would flash off like lightning”- the phenomenon known as “St. Elmo’s fire.” Bob felt that he was “very lucky that the good Lord was with him.” He went on to fly 92 missions over “the hump”. According to official records of the operation, the airlift “expended” 594 aircraft. At least 468 American and 41 CNAC (Chinese National Airways Corporation) aircraft were known lost from all causes, with 1,314 air crewmen and passengers killed. In addition 81 more aircraft were never accounted for, with their 345 personnel listed as missing. Another 1,200 personnel had been rescued or walked back to base on their own. So many planes had crashed that this stretch came to be called the “aluminum trail.” Bob had indeed been “very lucky.”
Bob’s time in India ended in December 1944. He returned to Dallas, Texas and was transferred to the “Ferry Command” where he flew all types of aircraft and delivered new P51-D’s to various airports around the country. He was then assigned to Special Missions in June, 1945 in Washington, D.C. His primary assignment then was to “fly dignitary personnel such as Generals and their families returning from other countries.” He was finally discharged on November 19, 1945 and eventually took a train to Lubbock. It was January 1, 1945. Bob noted that he had “spent three Christmases away from home.”
After discharge Bob wanted to go to college. He had an offer to fly for a major airline. He returned to the family he loved and the flat land he called home. His dad hugged him and said, “I’m glad you’re home, Son, I really need you here on the farm.” So Bob laid aside his dreams, ambitions, preferences and dropped his military name, once again answering to the name Elton. He never regretted that decision.
The farm kept Elton busy so he had little social life. He was a quiet man, and a bit timid around ladies, so a friend set him up with a blind date. Her name was Anne Whorton. He lost his heart to this lovely lady. He married her and moved her into a house without running water or electricity. They shared 54 years together and brought up four children, two boys, Ted and Paul, and two girls, Sue and Jane. Elton’s comment was always, “I’ve had a good life.
Elton and Ted Weisse stayed in touch, attended Hump Pilot Reunions, exchanged Christmas letters and phone calls until Ted’s death. That was a tremendous loss to Elton, but the memories they shared constantly brought him comfort.
Elton lived to be 94. He left behind 6 grandchildren, 10 great grandchildren, 2 long-time golfing buddies, Mike Howell and Lloyd Belk, a host of friends, loving neighbors, and a yawning emptiness in the hearts that will always love and miss him.
By Larry A. Williams, Veterans Liaison Co-Chair, Texas South Plains Honor Flight,
and Jody Boudreaux Wilson – Plainview, TX