NO. 17565 • 8 Mar 1925 - 24 Sep 1956
Died in Tallahasee, FL.
Interred in West Point Cemetery, West Point NY
On 24 Sep 1956, a hurricane glanced off the Louisiana and Alabama gulf coasts and struck northwest Florida with full force, blasting Panama City and nearby coastal towns with 100 mile per hour winds. CPT Bob Willerford and his wingman were ordered to evacuate two training aircraft from Tyndall AFB near Panama City. Initial orders were to evacuate the aircraft to the Midwest. Orders then changed, and CPT Willerford and his colleague were diverted to West Palm Beach. Bob's wife Mary remembers his rushing home and then heading back to the flight line, leaving his wallet on the dresser. After driving to the runway and watching while a sergeant ran out to return the wallet to him, she saw Bob wave vigorously to her and take off. Tragically, Bob and the wingman collided in the severe weather and crashed near Tallahassee. His wingman ejected safely and survived. Bob died in the crash and was buried with honors at West Point on 28 Sep 1956, just 6 years and 3 months after his graduation.
Bob left behind his young wife and three young children, family he treasured. He also left behind a father, mother, two sisters, and a brother he cared for deeply. He left behind a profession he loved. Flying was his passion. He left behind classmates and colleagues who greatly valued his friendship. Though long years have dimmed memories, we remember a fine, ebullient man with a brilliant smile, who had been a friend to all.
Robert Dale Willerford was born to Fred and Lillian Willerford in Chicago, IL, on 8 Mar 1925. They soon moved to Van Nuys, CA. He grew up there, the oldest of four children, with siblings Ruth, Beverly, and Fred. He attended Van Nuys High School, participating in sports and other activities. Upon graduation in 1942, Bob attended a preparatory school and then went into the Army in September 1943. He was assigned to the Army Special Training Program for continued education at Lafayette College, PA, and, subsequently, Amherst College, MA. With his leadership qualities evident, Bob was selected for OCS in April 1945 and graduated in December 1945 as a second lieutenant of Infantry. He was ordered back to Amherst College, this time to the USMA Prep School. Future classmate Tyler Goodman, at Amherst, remembers that many of the enlisted men regarded Bob as a model officer, whom they one day hoped to emulate. A final brief tour at Ft. Benning was interrupted by orders to join the Class of 1950 at West Point in July 1946.
Bob successfully negotiated the rigors of Beast Barracks, helping many classmates along the way. Company mate Fred Hoham recalled that Bob won a prize during Beast Barracks for rapidly field stripping and reassembling his M 1 rifle. In September, he joined Company E 1, his home until graduation. During his years at West Point, Bob was an 'A' Squad fencer, a mainstay of the saber team. His skill and sheer determination earned him a place on the 1950 Eastern Intercollegiate Championship Saber Team. He also participated in several clubs and served as a baseball manager. Again, his excellent leadership qualities were recognized with his appointment as a cadet lieutenant and platoon leader during First Class year. He was remembered by company commander Bill Aman as having had a steadying influence on the company.
While at West Point, Bob had the good fortune to meet his "OAO," Mary Bemis, of Spencer, MA. They were wed on 24 Jun 1950 during graduation leave and immediately went on to a first duty station at Randolph AFB, TX, with residence in New Braunfels. Upon completion of basic flight training, he and Mary moved on to Williams AFB, where he completed advanced training Over the next few years, their three children, Beth, Susie, and Bobbie, were born.
Following additional postings for continued training, Bob went to Korea in September 1952. After 23 combat missions in Korea with the 474th Fighter Bomber Wing, Bob was reassigned to the 9th Fighter Bomber Squadron in Nagoya, Japan, in December 1952. There, he joined a special group of about 30 pilots to train for a classified mission. It was some months later that Mary and the children joined him in Japan.
Bob was a tinkerer. For his family, every move was another chance to fiddle. He made furniture, painted, put up wallpaper, built shelves and cupboards, made folding patterns for linens, and created playrooms out of closets. While stationed in Nagoya, Mary remembers his stenciling balloons and children’s characters onto material he had found somewhere, making curtains for the children’s rooms. He tinkered sometimes with official permission, sometimes without.
More than his family benefited from his tinkering. In Korea, Bob and his colleagues underwent special mission training. It required careful weapon preparation, precise weapon settings, and intricate installation of devices on board the F84G aircraft. The procedure involved the use of several test instruments that were not particularly well arranged. Bob designed a consolidated configuration for the test instruments on a dolly, greatly contributing to the speed and efficiency of preflight operations. The training required dangerous long range flights over Korea in overloaded aircraft and a return to base with minimal fuel in reserve. Fortunately, the armistice in 1953 obviated the need for execution of the special weapons missions.
Upon return to the States in 1954, the family traveled to Tyndall AFB, FL, where Bob served as a flight instructor until the tragic day in September 1956 when his plane crashed in Florida. During his short but distinguished service, Bob was recognized with the Air Medal and Commendation Medal.
Bob Willerford is remembered by family, friends, classmates, and colleagues as a man who loved and cared for his family with great dedication, who was a stalwart friend, and who served his nation proudly and with distinction.
- His Family and Classmates