WW II U.S. Army Air Corps veteran honored by County Legislature

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express
World War II bomber pilot Richard Gillespie (seated) was honored Monday, Aug. 9 at the meeting of the Yates County Legislature for his 100th birthday and in recognition of his service to a grateful nation. With him are Legislator Leslie Church, his son Bob, Yates County Veterans' Services Director Phil Rouin, Legislature Chairman Doug Paddock, and County Treasurer/Administrator Nonie Flynn.

PENN YAN – Richard T. Gillespie’s 100th birthday is Aug. 14, and that fact combined with his remarkable service as a young B-17 bomber pilot in World War II moved the Yates County Legislature to pass a resolution honoring both the man and his contribution to the preservation of democracy.

Read aloud and in full by Legislator Leslie Church, the resolution sates:

RESOLVED,

WHEREAS, August 14, 2021 marks the 100th birthday of U.S. Army Air Corps Veteran Richard T. Gillespie; and

WHEREAS, throughout the history of our state and nation, countless brave individuals have answered the call to patriotic duty, including World War II Veteran Richard T. Gillespie, who honorably served our grateful nation, as a B-17 Pilot he flew 21 missions over Germany with the 447th Bomb Group, while others risked their lives fighting on the battlefields in European and Pacific theatres for the ideals of democracy, and

WHEREAS, Mr. Gillespie was enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in May of 1943, shortly after receiving his pilot’s license through the Federal Civilian Pilot Training Program from Syracuse University, graduated from pilot training, received specialized advanced aviation training and was assigned to the 447th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, as a B-17 Pilot at Rattlesden, in East Anglia (England); and

WHEREAS, Mr. Gillespie was honorably discharged on November 3, 1945 with the rank of First Lieutenant; and

WHEREAS, the United States Army awarded Mr. Gillespie the following military awards: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and two Oak Leaf Clusters Distinguished Unit Citation, European Theatre of Operation Ribbon and three Bronze Service Stars, and World War II Victory Medal, for his honest and faithful service to this county; and

WHEREAS, we solemnly commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth and reflect on its significance for past, present, and future generations;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Yates County Legislature recognizes the service of Richard T. Gillespie during World War II, extends its gratitude for his contribution to the Allies’ victory and exclaims, “Congratulations!” upon the occasion of her 100th Birthday; and be it further

RESOLVED, that the Yates County Legislature, in patriotic tradition, recognizes the importance of honoring all those from Yates County who served in battle and on the home front during the Second World War and acknowledges the immeasurable sacrifices that helped to preserve freedom; and be it further

RESOLVED, that copies of this resolution be provided to Richard T. Gillespie and the Director of Veterans’ Services

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One of "The Greatest Generation"

Dick Gillespie in 1945, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

When Dick Gillespie turned 24 on Aug. 14, 1945, he got a special present – Victory over Japan or V-J Day. But before that in December of 1944, the 23-year-old Second Lieutenant had arrived in Scotland via the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth, as the pilot of a B-17 Boeing Bomber, referred to as “The Flying Fortress,” and responsible for the nine-man crew assigned to it, soon finding themselves flying bombing raids through deadly “flak alley” to drop bombs on Hitler’s Germany.

Gillespie's boyhood, working for his father’s dairy in Fulton, was the beginning of his training. He says learning to drive a horse-drawn milk wagon or sleigh as a 6-year-old taught him quite a lot, and the discipline of getting up at 4 a.m. each day didn’t hurt either.

After graduating from Fulton in 1940, he went on to study engineering at Syracuse, and before the war began for the USA in 1941, he had joined the civilian pilot training program. Dick’s mother, an early aviation enthusiast, had done much to spark his interest.

It had been Dick’s dream to fly B-17s since he saw the first prototype back in 1934. When he went on to train with the highly demanding crack flight instructors who also trained West Point cadets at Newburgh, N.Y., he was one of only six or seven out of his class of 60 who went on to fly B-17s. Most of them, he says, became fighter pilots. Dick admits he probably would have hesitated at the trigger had he become one too, targeting individual planes and crews rather than factories and airfields.

Mission

According to records, his most acclaimed mission was one that earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross “for extraordinary achievement ... demonstrating exceptional piloting ability” for bombing a German jet fighter airfield and destroying several jets ready for takeoff. Ironically, this was in Neuburg (or Newburgh) Germany, the namesake of the New York town where Dick had been trained. That flight, like every other, was flown through deadly anti-aircraft cannon fire, the exploding shells making holes in their planes on almost every mission.

Throughout his recollections, Dick often says “I was lucky;” lucky to be a qualified pilot at the start of his service; lucky with the training he had at Newburgh; lucky for all the previous bombing crews had learned; lucky to be able to fly all his 21 missions without losing a man, and his 10 missions as pilot of the lead plane to never loose a ship to enemy fire. Luck was on his side no doubt, but Dick did his best to make sure he was worthy of that luck, too. Not trusting the primitive auto-pilot connected to the bomb sight, he flew each mission in full control using the pilot’s directional indicator alone. In a plane controlled almost completely by pure human muscle pulling on cable and wire, on flights sometimes lasting over 10 hours, at 24,000 feet with temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero, it was “hard work,” he says with typical understatement. “If you flew good formation (tight), you worked like hell.”

Miss Lacey

That strain never daunted his affection for his first plane, the Boeing-built “Miss Lacey,” stationed at Rattleden in Suffolk on the east coast of England. His later missions were flown on “Mickey ships,” which had a radar unit in place of the ball turret and an extra crewman called the Mickey operator. “But that Boeing plane was something else,” he says with nostalgic affection many of us can only relate to when we recall a favorite car.

The crew of the B-17 bomber “Miss Lacey,” 1st Lt. Richard Truman Gillespie front and center.

When the war in Europe finally ended, Dick had the honor to be the lead pilot in the group that took the ground crew personnel for a flying tour over Germany and France to see what all their work had been for; the defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich and the liberation of Europe. He also flew home 20 Army Air Force personnel via Prestwick in Scotland (where he suffered the only tire blowout of his career), to Reykjavík in Iceland, to Goose Bay in Labrador to Bradley Field in Connecticut.

The 20 men Dick Gillespie flew home safely across the Atlantic after World War II via Scotland, Iceland, and Labrador to Bradley Field in Connecticut.

Home Again

From there, Dick soon returned home to his wife Jean (née Ellsworth), his hometown sweetheart whom he married just before shipping out to England. He finished his degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Syracuse University in 1948, and served in the Air Force reserves for several years. But, needed in the family dairy business, he took that on instead, and he and Jean made a happy life for themselves and their four boys.

Gillespie Dairy was bought out by Crowley in 1974. Retiring to Florida, Dick and Jean visited his old AAF buddies several times, but moved to Penn Yan near Bob and Char when Jean’s health failed in 1998.

Reliving the B-17

In 2012 at the age of 91, Gillespie once again climbed aboard one of the very few B-17s still flying, and for a little more than an hour, was 23 again. That was the year he got to fly in the Collings Foundation’s “Wings Of Freedom Tour” from Jamestown back to Penn Yan Airport along with his son, Bob Gillespie, renowned local artist and retired art teacher from Penn Yan Junior High.

Dick Gillespie after his 2012 flight in the restored B-17 named "Nine O Nine" from Jamestown to Penn Yan.

Buckled in on the radio operator’s stool, Dick's happiness was obvious as the four engines turned over and the odor of 100-octane fuel and burning oil wafted in. “I love it!” he said, shaking his head as the roar of the engines and the shaking of the airframe propelled him back to his youth. Once in the air and free to move about the plane, Dick went immediately to the flight deck, crossing over the bomb bay on a six-inch wide beam with an easy, assured grace. He spent the rest of the flight standing behind the co-pilot Whitney Coyle, watching pilot Mac MacCauley do the job he did so long, yet not so long, ago. Upon arrival in Penn Yan with a flawless landing, Dick descended from the "Nine O Nine," the sister ship of his old friend, Miss Lacey, with the energy and satisfaction of the much younger man he was then, and was again, at least for a day.

Portions of this article and photos are reprinted from John Christensen's 2012 article.