The military’s sergeant pilots, enlisted aviators who served from 1912-1957, were honored during a monument unveiling and dedication at Maxwell-Gunter’s Enlisted Heritage Hall June 9.
Nearly 14 years in the making, the monument depicts Corporal Vernon L. Burge, the Army Signal Corps’ first enlisted pilot, in recognition of the service and sacrifices made by nearly 3,000 enlisted men who followed in Burge’s footsteps.
In attendance were three sergeant pilots; retired Lt. Col. Charles Fisk, retired Col. James “Pat” Pool, and retired Lt. Col. John W. Beard, as well as the family members of several other enlisted pilots who were integral to making the monument a reality.
Gen. Robin Rand, commander Air Education and Training Command, presided over the ceremony, saluting the pilots for their service and contributions to the war effort. Like all who served in WWII, Rand said these enlisted pilots made up the greatest generation. Of the 3,000 sergeant pilots, 11 of them would go on to achieve the rank of general officer, 17 would become flying aces and more than 150 were killed in action.
“They were men, who during a time of crisis, did not shrink from service to our country, and instead they courageously fought to defend and aid those around them,” Rand said. “Quite simply, our enlisted pilots were the very best our country had to offer. I am honored to be here today to memorialize their service and I am a humbled, truly humbled, to count myself among them as a United States Air Force military pilot.”
Craig Wood, whose father SSgt. Herman C. Wood, later a retired colonel, was there to honor his father. Craig, who also served in the Air Force as an intelligence officer and later as a Department of Defense civilian for 30 years, said his father came from a difficult family background. With his mother ill and father out of the picture, Wood worked in a garage all the way through high school to help take care of his siblings. Inspired by barn stormers, the stunt pilots who performed aeronautical tricks during the 1920s, Wood had always wanted to fly, but family circumstances made the dream seem just out of reach.
The military and enlisted pilot program was an opportunity that changed everything for Wood, who would go on to serve as a C-17 Globemaster III bombardier, and later as a transport pilot.
“He enlisted in 1938 and then, subsequently, when the offer was made to be able to fly, it was a like a dream come true for dad,” Wood said. “So to me, coming here and remembering the significant role he had in this part of history, is really what it’s all about. I’m looking up and dad’s looking down and he’s pleased. He worked extremely hard for this, to record this part of Air Force history.”
Organized by the Enlisted Heritage Hall and the Army Air Corps Enlisted Pilots Association, the unveiling ceremony was a long time coming. Larry Chivalette, the museum curator, said the catalyst for the monument creation was when retired Brig. Gen. Edwin F. Wenglar, who championed for way to honor the enlisted pilots, passed way in 2011.
“It was his dying wish to get this done. Then Colonel Wood took over, and when he contacted CMSgt. Fred Graves, [AF Enlisted Heritage Hall director] the chief gave him his word he was going to try to make it happen.”
Two days later Wood passed away.
Since the conversation in 2012, Chivalette said that Graves worked feverishly to create a monument that would honor and recognize all enlisted pilots. The efforts of the museum staff, along with the sergeant pilots and their families, raised more than $60,000 to make the monument a reality.
Pool was inspired by an early chance encounter with Wiley Post, an America pilot famous during the early 1930s for being the first man to fly solo around the world. Post was also the personal pilot of wealthy Oklahoma oil businessman F.C. Hall, who flew to Chickasa, Okla., to meet with Pool’s father, a newspaper editor. When Hall and Pool’s father drove off to town, young Pool was left with the famous pilot, who took him for a spin.
“I, of course, I was all for it,” Pool said. “At that time he was the most famous aviator in the whole world. So we got on board, and when we left for take-off, I got to thinking about how I could do this for life.”
Pool entered the service Aug. 28, 1941, just in time for Pearl Harbor, and upon completing flying school, was sent to India where he spent the war hauling critical cargo and solders to Pacific theater battlefields. Later, he flew in the famous Berlin Airlift, carrying humanitarian aid to the residents of West Berlin.
Pool, speaking about the monument, and the decision to have Burge represent all enlisted pilots, said it was a lifetime endeavor culminating in the statute.