I’m saddened to report the news that my friend and fellow airman, Lt. William Wheeler, passed away yesterday of heart failure at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre.
As many of you know, I took Bill and his dear friend, the late Major Victor Terrelonge, flying in the same type aircraft they first used in primary training to become fighter pilots in WWII. They hadn’t flown this type in nearly 70 years. I described the event on my show last year. But I can tell you, seeing the joy in their eyes and smiles on their faces as they flew again really said more than words ever could for these two veteran aviators.
They were part of a groundbreaking aviation program training 994 black pilots who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, who really fought two wars, the Axis overseas, and prejudice here at home. Bill earned his wings as a fighter pilot in March 1944 and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He was assigned to the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, in Ramitelli, Italy, and flew low level strafing and bomber escort missions over Europe in the venerable P-51 Mustang.
A Graduate of Howard University, he started a family after his honorable discharge, worked in publishing and various aircraft industries, and retired as an administrator with National Westminster Bank. He would have loved a flying career, and though the new airline industry favored the best-trained, military pilots and fliers in the world, no Tuskegee aviators were ever hired. However, Bill never forgot his fellow airmen.
Whether speaking to students at schools or attending countless air shows and museums across the US, he was very active spreading the word about their legacy.
He did see their long-ignored achievements get recognition. In 2007, he was in attendance when President George W. Bush presented the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award.
The last time I saw Bill was at the annual Scholarship dinner sponsored by the local Tuskegee Chapter earlier this year where I recalled his flight. After my speech, he walked all the way around the dinner tables to come up and give me a big hug and thanks for the kind words.
I can tell you that as many daring missions he and his friend Major Terrelonge flew, it is an honor to have in my logbook the memory of giving these two outstanding military aviators their final flights.
Lt William M. Wheeler was 87 years old.