I received an email from Mike Gomez a couple of weeks ago. Mike’s company manages the townhome complex I live in. To say that this email was a surprise is an understatement because I typically only hear from him if I’ve asked a question about something having to do with the homeowners association. To say that this email was a treasure trove of fun information is also an understatement because … well, read on.
The red-tailed Mustang the CAF Red Tail Squadron flies was used as a trainer here in the States during the last part of WWII. After the war, like so many other airplanes, it was declared surplus and ultimately flown to Montana where it sat on a pedestal at Montana State University in Bozemanfor decades. To my knowledge, no one in the CAF Red Tail Squadron has really questioned the Mustang’s tenure there. Mike, a retired USAF Senior Master Sergeant and aviation buff, thinks he may have the answer to one aspect of its stay there and it’s a doozy. Here are the emails he sent me:
February 10, 2012 email: [Tuskegee Airman] Col. Luke Weathers passed away recently. In 2005, I had the privilege of meeting the old gentleman. There is a fascinating story here that involves Montana State University, Col. Weathers, and his wingman, Lt. William E. Hill.
There is a strong possibility that Lt. Hill once flew the P-51 that is currently in your organization's possession. That would be a fantastic story if it turns out that the aircraft that was restored to honor the Tuskegee Airmen was in fact at one time flown by a Tuskegee Airman.
I'll send you a picture that I took of Col Weathers at his home in Phoenix, Arizona. And if you are interested, I'll send you the details and photographic proof of why I think there is a connection with Lt. Hill and the P-51.
I was, of course, EXTREMELY interested!
February 12, 2012 email: This is a fascinating story with some incredible coincidences. It started while I attending MSU and started working as a student employee in the computer labs. At that time, the person in charge of the labs had a cluttered office in the basement of the library. A couple of years later, he started moving into another room just a few doors down.
I got a chance to see the new room while he was in the process of cleaning it out. It appeared to me to be a storage area but dumping ground would better describe it. Seems that throughout the years stuff got dumped in there and forgotten about. So he cleaned it out and moved his office in there.
Years later he would become my immediate supervisor. Greatest guy I've ever known, by the way. As fate would have it, he came down with pancreatic cancer and died shortly after. I had just obtained my Computer Science degree so I applied for his job.
I got the job and moved into his office. In the process of cleaning it out, I found an old flight computer in a leather case. I'm positive that this was one of those items that had been dumped in that old storage room Anyway, there was some writing inside the case lid, faded but still readable:
William E. Hill Tuskegee Ala 12 1943
|Lt. William E. Hill's bag with writing on the flap and the "computer"|
There is some more writing and I've included it in the photo I'm sending of the computer. Needless to say that I recognized what it was at once. An original WWII era flight computer used by a Tuskegee Airman. By the way, I've alway been an avid aviation buff, especially WWII aircraft so I recognized its importance.
When I left my job in 2003, I decided that the computer was too valuable to entrust whoever inherited my office to it so I took it with me. My thoughts were to find the proper person, museum, or some other organization to present it to. My first choice would be a relative of Lt. Hill.
I spent several years, on and off, searching the Internet for any information on Lt. Hill. Couldn't find anything about him except for the fact that he was KIA. Did quite a bit of searching, thinking.
Should have keep a diary of all my efforts, but I didn't so I can't really remember the details of how I came up with the idea of tracking down Col. Weathers instead. The reason I chose him was that I found out that he and Lt. Hill shared one victory. So after numerous dead-ends, I finally contacted his daughter and she gave me his cell phone number.
It was quite a thrill contacting him the first time. Talked to him several times because we always seemed to be getting disconnected. One time I got a hold of him while he was driving and I asked him if he remembered Lt. Hill. "Yeah. He was my wingman." then we got disconnected. At that point I knew that the computer belonged with him.
From our conversation, I found out that he lived in Tucson. (I mistakenly said Phoenix in my first email to you.) So then it was a simple matter to find his address on Google maps. I didn't let him know I was coming, just hopped in my car and drove down there from Livingston, Montana. Couple days later I knocked on his door, he answered it, I introduced myself, and he invited me in.
It was great, being in the presence of a Tuskegee Airman. He showed me an album that had the history of the organization and pictures of all the pilots. What a thrill to see the picture of Lt. William E. Hill while in my hand was his flight computer! I took several pictures of Col. Weathers and the album. Unfortunately the one I took of Lt. Hill is way too blurry. Wish I'd had taken a ton more.
Anyway, I left the computer with Col. Weathers and a letter explaining how I came in possession of it.
When I originally started my search, I had no idea that MSU (originally known as MSC) had had a P-51 Mustang. So when I first found the computer, I had could not understand how a flight computer used by a P-51 pilot stationed in Alabama wound up in a university campus in Montana. It wasn't till much later that I learned about the plane.
From what I understand, the plane was actually flown to Billings, Montana, which is about 150 miles from Bozeman. There, the wings were cut off so that it could be trucked to MSC. My guess is Lt. Hill's computer was in that aircraft. He would not have flown the aircraft himself since he was already KIA. But he probably flew it at one time, probably while in training since that plane served as a trainer at one time. He must have left it in the plane. The computer probably was just included in the briefcase containing the aircraft records when it was delivered to Billlings. And somehow it found its way to the basement of the library.
I'm sending you two pictures of the computer. The actual writing is pretty unreadable because of the quality of the pictures but I've included the text on one of the pictures, exactly as it appears on the computer and about the same orientation.
My thanks to Mike for sharing this interesting information and the photos!
Lt. William E. Hill is listed as having graduated with Tuskegee class 43-H in August 1943. Regrettably, I was unable to find out any information about his “KIA” status. Here is a link to a list of KIA Tuskegee pilots compiled by Tuskegee historian Daniel Haulman. You’ll see that there are some information gaps in the Fall of 1944 regarding the names of pilots killed. It could be that Mr. Hill was one of those whose names are not listed.
Since the Squadron's Mustang was built by North American Aviation in 1944 and only used in the U.S., I doubt that Mr. Hill would have flown it. That does not negate the importance of Mike finding his bag and Mustang computer and understanding their significance. In fact, that just adds to the mystery. How did that bag come to be in the storage room at MSU? I am personally fascinated by the concept of there being a "computer" for the Mustang.
If anyone knows anything about Lt. Hill, the Mustang "computer" or the Squadron's P-51's stay at Montana State University, I invite them to share the information via the "Comment" section at the bottom of this blog. Inquiring minds want to know!
The RISE Above Traveling Exhibit will be in Columbus, Mississippi from February 29 thru March 3. It will be set up at the Hitching Lot Farmer's Market site and open to the public. Admission is, as always, free. Click here to see the hours, etc.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.