William Whisner

Text by Divan Muller
It is rare for a pilot to become an ‘ace in a day’. It is just as rare to be awarded a Distinguished Service Cross three times or to become an ace in two wars. However, one pilot accomplished all of these feats during his career as a fighter pilot.
Courtesy of the USAF
Early life and training

William Thomas Whisner Jr. was born on 17 October 1923 in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the USA. As a teenager, he became interested in becoming a combat pilot, so upon graduating high school, he applied to enter the US Army Air Forces’ (USAAF) cadet training programme. With his application successful, Whisner flew Boeing Stearmans, Fairchild PT-19s and North American Texans, known to those in Commonwealth countries as Harvards, before being commissioned as an officer and beginning operational training as a Republic P-47 fighter pilot. Whisner was then assigned to the 352nd Fighter Group, which had been tasked with operating from England. In June 1943, Whisner sailed to England onboard RMS Queen Elizabeth, an ocean liner which had been converted into a troop transport ship. By then, the Second World War had been raging in Europe for about four years.

World War II Combat

When Whisner and the rest of the 352nd Fight Group’s pilots arrived in England, they were assigned to Royal Air Force (RAF) Bodney, an air force station near the country’s east coast. Over the next few months, Whisner and his fellow P-47 Thunderbolt pilots flew training missions over the English countryside. The fighter group flew its first operational missions in September 1943, but saw comparatively little combat throughout the rest of the year. That changed in January 1944, when the fighter group’s P-47s were tasked with escorting Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers over Europe. Whilst flying over Belgium on 29 January, Whisner claimed his first aerial victory by destroying a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 which had just shot down a B-17. Two months later, the 352nd Fight Group’s P-47s were replaced with North American P-51B Mustangs. Whisner named his aircraft ‘Princess Elizabeth’. During an escort mission in April that year, Whisner’s flight spotted enemy aircraft parked at an airfield. The Mustangs attacked the airfield and Whisner destroyed two Junkers Ju 88 bombers. Over the next two months, Whisner shot down two Fw 190s and destroyed dozens of enemy ground targets, such as locomotives and supply vehicles. Shortly after flying in support of the D-Day invasion of Europe in June, Whisner completed his first tour of duty and was given three months’ leave in the USA.

When Whisner returned to England for his second tour of duty, the fighter group’s P-51Bs had been replaced with more modern P-51Ds. On 2 November, he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Germany. Then, later that month, he flew a particularly memorable mission which resulted in him being awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), an American award for acts of heroism which is second only to the Medal of Honour. According to the award citation, “Captain Whisner led a flight of P-51s on an escort mission to Merseburg, Germany. As the bombers left their target, a large formation of enemy fighters struck. In a linked series of attacks, Whisner shot down four Fw 190s in the cover flight and probably got another. With no more than two Fw 190s left in the cover flight he had attacked, Whisner turned his attention to the main enemy formation, exploding an Fw 190 that had not dropped its belly tank. Evading three Fw 190s on his tail, he shot down another that was closing on one of his pilots. Whisner was credited with five Fw 190s and two ‘probables’ that day. His score later was revised by the Air Force Historical Research Centre to six destroyed, making that day one of the best for any USAAF pilot in the skies over Europe. Captain Whisner's unquestionable valour in aerial combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 8th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.”

By the end of 1944, Whisner’s squadron had been moved to an airfield in Belgium, close to the frontlines. At the time, German forces were in the process of mounting a counteroffensive against the Allies in the Ardennes Forest in eastern Belgium. During that counteroffensive, which became known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, Whisner earned a second DSC on 1 January 1945. The award citation read, “On this date, as his plane left the ground, Captain Whisner observed thirty hostile fighters preparing to strafe the field. Disregarding the enemy's great superiority in numbers and position, and without waiting to form up with his flight, Captain Whisner attacked alone. In the engagements that followed his aircraft was hit and badly damaged, but determined to defend the field he pressed his attack and destroyed four enemy aircraft. Only after the enemy had been completely dispersed did Captain Whisner halt his pursuit.”

By the time war in Europe ended in May 1945, Whisner had shot down at least sixteen enemy aircraft. During the remainder of the 1940s, he served with various fighter squadrons in the USA.
Courtesy of the USAF
Korean War

The Korean War began when North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. North Korea was supported by the Soviet Union and China, whilst South Korea had the support of the United Nations. Whisner was deployed to South Korea in September 1951. By the end of that year, he had shot down two enemy Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s over North Korea, whilst flying a jet-powered North American Sabre. During that time, he had also damaged four more enemy fighters. By January 1952, Whisner had been transferred to 25th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, where he served under fighter ace Gabby Gabreski. Over the next two months, Whisner shot down three more MiGs, whilst sharing a ‘probable’. After destroying his fifth confirmed MiG on 23 February, Whisner was awarded a DSC yet again, with the following citation, “On that date Major Whisner destroyed an enemy MiG-15 aircraft attacking an F-86 piloted by a member of his own group. Major Whisner flew to the immediate aid of the pilot in the face of the enemy's great numerical superiority. With an expertly executed manoeuvre, he attacked the MiG-15 which was pressing full attack on the friendly aircraft and forced the enemy to break away. As Major Whisner bore in to deter the enemy action, another MiG-15 swept down on his tail and began lobbing shells at his aircraft. In spite of the imminent danger of losing his own life, Major Whisner continued to force the first MiG-15 to break away and in the face of overwhelming odds, destroyed the enemy aircraft. The downed MIG-15 raised Major Whisner's record of enemy aircraft destruction to five and one-half and established him as the seventh jet ace of the Korean campaign.”

Life after the Korean War

The Korean War ended in July 1953, but Whisner was transferred back to the USA in March 1952, where he continued his career as a military pilot. In 1953, he won the coveted Bendix Trophy Race by flying an F-86 Sabre from Muroc Field, now Edwards Air Force Base, in California, to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. He covered the distance of more than 3 000 km in just over three hours. During the remainder of his time with the air force, Whisner served in a variety of leadership positions. Highlights of his career included serving as an exchange officer with the Royal Air Force in the late 1950s, as well as deployments to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Shortly before his retirement in 1972, Whisner served as commander of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath in England. He died on 21 July 1989 due to complications resulting from being stung by a yellowjacket wasp. He was 65 years old.