Epilogue: Pilot flew 137 combat missions, but never considered himself a hero

Robert Williams peered out of the car window at a British military base, looking for a piece of his past.

In 1944, the American pilot had taken off for France from Debden Air Base.

The plane never made it back. It had taken Mr. Williams 54 years to return to the site. Now the Redington Beach resident wanted to show his son and grandson the airfield from which he had launched his most memorable adventure.

It was late afternoon in east England, with the sky drizzling rain and getting dark early.

A lot had changed. A military escort told Mr. Williams that Debden belonged to the British Army, and that there was no airfield on the base.

Mr. Williams insisted there was. He asked the driver to turn down one more road.

• • •

Mr. Williams, a highly decorated Air Force lieutenant colonel who fought for Canada, England and the United States, died Monday after a long illness. He was 94. He had always considered St. Petersburg his home, having moved to the city from his native Lisbon, Ohio, in 1923.

His grandfather, Lyman Miller, developed a half-dozen hotels in St. Petersburg, including the Prince George, the Albemarle, the Gotham and the Ritz. Mr. Williams graduated from St. Petersburg High and what was then St. Petersburg Junior College.

"He was a straightforward, jovial guy," said his son, Kenneth Williams, 57. "He liked people."

He had always known he wanted to fly planes.

He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which was recruiting pilots, in 1940. He earned his wings a year later and transferred into England's Royal Air Force.

Mr. Williams was promoted to sergeant pilot, and flew 33 missions against the waves of German bombers in the months-long "blitz" of British cities. He saw many fellow pilots die.

"Imagine the people you work with," his son said. "You come back and somebody is just not there."

Mr. Williams transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942, where he would fly 104 additional missions over Germany and France.

In 1944 he took off from RAF Debden, in England. His P-51 Mustang was hit while flying over Angers, France. He ejected and pulled the ripcord, but could not escape part of the damaged plane's tail striking him in the head. It disoriented him, his son said. "All he could see was white. He decided he had died and gone to heaven."

Instead, Mr. Williams discovered that he was floating through a cloud. He landed in a field, temporarily paralyzed. A farming family found him. Because Mr. Williams was unable to move, they loaded him into a wheelbarrow and put him in a bedroom.

The Germans caught up with him and transferred Mr. Williams to Stalag Luft 1. Russian forces liberated the camp a year later, but imprisonment stayed with him.

"He always used to tell me growing up, 'Don't ever do anything that could result in you losing your freedom,' " his son said.

• • •

In 1945, Mr. Williams married Englishwoman Ada Bridger, a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force he had met earlier.

Mr. Williams finished out a 28-year career with the U.S. Air Force in 1970, retiring from MacDill Air Force Base as a lieutenant colonel. For his wartime heroism, he was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, four Air Medals for combat operations, a Purple Heart and numerous other commendations.

In retirement in Redington Beach, he flew ultralight planes, and took up ballroom dancing after his wife's death in 1984.

In 1998 he returned to England on a family trip. He took a private car to the Royal Air Force base he thought he remembered.

Debden Air Base had been handed over to the British Army in the mid 1970s. Though considered part of England's military heritage, the young soldier escorting the Americans did not know that history.

Meanwhile, Mr. Williams' family was getting impatient. "I said, 'Hey, Dad, it's getting a little late,' " Kenneth Williams recalled.

Mr. Williams asked the driver to turn down a road near the edge of the base.

Suddenly, he asked him to stop the car. Mr. Williams got out and walked to a fence. There, plainly visible through wet grass, lay an expanse of concrete.

"It was 50 yards wide," Kenneth Williams said. "You could definitely see it had been a runway."

Mr. Williams then said, "Fifty-four years ago, I took off from that airfield right there and never came back."

Mr. Williams never considered himself a hero. "He said he just did the same things everybody else did on a daily basis," his son said.

He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

Lt. Col. Robert George "Digger" Williams

Born: Sept. 26, 1917

Died: Aug. 20, 2012

Survivors: daughter Valerie Williams; son Kenneth Williams; two grandchildren.

Service: Date to be arranged, Arlington National Cemetery.

.Biography

Lt. Col. Robert George "Digger" Williams

Born: Sept. 26, 1917

Died: Aug. 20, 2012

Survivors: daughter Valerie Williams; son Kenneth Williams; two grandchildren.

Service: Date to be arranged, Arlington National Cemetery.

Epilogue: Pilot flew 137 combat missions, but never considered himself a hero 08/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 27, 2012 10:46pm]

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