He was a combat pilot who served during World War II with the Tuskegee Airmen, the
highly decorated all-black 99th Fighter Squadron. He went on 99 combat missions,
and lived to talk about it. But he didn't. A modest man, Lt. Col. Theodore Allen
Wilson rarely talked with his family about his fighting days, said Doris Wilson,
his wife of 60 years.
But there was no question of his pride in being one of the first African Americans
to serve as a military pilot, said a granddaughter, Michelynn Woodard, 34. His pride
was evident in the room he had in his South San Francisco home that was dedicated
to his 26-year military career, as a Tuskegee Airman and then a lieutenant colonel
in the Air Force. Model planes, uniforms, bomber jackets, medals and books filled
the room, she said. Even his room at the nursing home at the San Francisco VA Medical
Center was filled with posters reminding him of his military past. And he was eager
to share the pioneer history of the Tuskegee pilots at public speaking engagements
attended by younger generations.
Nearly 1,000 black men served in World War II as Tuskegee Airmen. Lt. Col. Wilson
was one of the few who survived not only the war but old age. On Wednesday, the Tuskegee
Airmen lost another of their heroes when Col. Wilson, battling poor health for a
decade, was felled by an infection related to his diabetes. He was 86.
Lt. Col. Wilson was born in Gloucester, a rural coastal town in Virginia, and grew
up in Roanoke. His father was a general contractor, and his mother taught home economics
in high school. He had a younger sister.
Col. Wilson would eventually earn a bachelor's degree in sociology from Virginia
Union University in Richmond, but his studies were interrupted in his junior year
by the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. He was inducted into the Army, and was soon transferred
to the aviation cadet training center for African Americans at Tuskegee Institute
in Alabama. Nine months later, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and rated
to fly single-engine fighter planes.
He flew the P-40 Warhawk and the P-51 Mustang on 60 missions over Europe, said his
wife. As a fighter pilot, his job was to protect the cumbersome planes that were
carrying bombs to drop on enemy targets. By the war's end, he had been promoted to
captain. He later saw combat again, during the Korean War, when he was part of
the 13th Bomb Squadron, flying the B-26K bomber and then the C-47 over Korea and
Japan, in 39 combat missions. His performance earned him the rank of major and a
While serving in the military, Lt. Col. Wilson married the former Doris Scott, whom
he met while an undergraduate, and they had two children. He also earned a master's
degree in business from the University of Dayton in Ohio while he was stationed at
a base there. After retiring from the Air Force in 1968, Lt. Col. Wilson joined
Bank of America, eventually rising to assistant vice president. He retired in 1984.
Col. Wilson was plagued by poor health for most of his retirement, said his wife.
He spent the last decade at the VA Medical Center. Although fighter pilots are
popularly seen as swashbucklers bursting with bravado, on land Lt. Col. Wilson was
always a soft-spoken, gentle man, said his wife. "He was just so nice,'' she said.
"He was the type who would open the door, always. He'd stand up when a lady would
enter the room and give her his seat. He was a gentleman."
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children, Suzanne Woodard of Austin,
Texas, and Theodore A. Wilson III of Castro Valley; a sister, Margaret Thomas of
Bethlehem, Pa.; and three grandchildren.
Funeral services will be today at 1 p.m. at the Bryant Mortuary, 635 Fulton St. in
San Francisco. Burial will follow at the Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, accompanied
by a 21-gun salute.
This article appeared on page B - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle