Back to Heroes & Awards

Lt. Col. Richard "Ken" Wheeler, 91, recounts his WWII missions

Gig Harbor resident flew 35 missions over the course of the war

Lt. Col. Richard "Ken" Wheeler standing before a Boeing B-17. Courtesy photo

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

Retired Lt. Col. Richard "Ken" Wheeler, almost 91, has a story to tell and, if you ask nicely, he'll leave you enthralled.

Wheeler, who resides in Gig Harbor with his second wife, Sharon, is a World War II veteran that survived the harrowing ordeal of being shot down over German territory. After joining the military, he graduated from navigation school in June of 1944 and was assigned to the crew of a B-17 Bomber as part of the Army Air Corps, which later became the Air Force in 1947.

He was deployed to Gioia, Italy where he promptly began flying missions with his original crew, though that soon changed; he was part of a new crew when he left on that fateful mission from Italy to Poland. 

"We caught some flak (anti-aircraft fire) from the enemy - usually bursts of four is normal and I counted two and I was cringing wondering if the third or fourth would hit us. Then it did and burst below us, puncturing the oil supply," he recounted.

The crew had to shut down the number one and two engines - leaving only two engines on the right - and fell out of formation because they couldn't maintain the 28,000 altitude. They tried to turn back to Italy, but the plane was rapidly losing altitude. They began to throw things - from ammunition to guns to stools - overboard in order to lighten the load. Next they dropped the bombs they were carrying on empty warehouses in Gyor, Hungary - or as Wheeler calls them targets of opportunity - in order to still get some mission credit.

Their plane had just crossed the Austrian border with Hungary when the pilot came on and said, "Let's get the hell out of here."

"I was concentrating on the navigation problem so I hadn't really noticed that the number three engine had caught fire," Wheeler said. "So I crawled to the edge of the exit hatch, looked down and it was like stepping off the Grand Canyon. I slid out the door, said a prayer and pulled the ripcord - and thankfully the parachute opened."

Of course that jump was over German-occupied territory, so Wheeler described it "like jumping from the frying pan into the fryer."

He landed in a forest of tall evergreen trees - where he jokes the parachute might still be to this day - and managed to cut himself down and locate two other members of the crew. The three men then slowly descended the snow-covered mountain.

Wheeler credits their survival to the kindness of non-English speaking people residing nearby who recognized them as Americans and showed them the way to go. The small group walked 135 miles to get through the war-torn area and burned buildings and it took them just under two weeks to make it south to Split, Yugoslavia, where they were able to make contact with an OSS agent and remain hidden until a British Air Rescue boat could come to get them in the middle of the night.

Wheeler then spent three days at a hospital in Italy, though he suffered no serious injuries, and was given a few days R&R in Rome, before heading back up in the air to find those targets again.

In total, Wheeler flew 35 missions over the course of the war and spent close to three decades in the Air Force, during which he continued to fly and work with a military airlift command that took him on flights all over the world. He accrued more than 10,000 hours in the air over the course of his career.

"It was a super interesting career and the best job to have," said the war hero, who often speaks to local schools and groups about his experiences. "I will never forget any of it."

comments powered by Disqus