Flying High One veteran's day: 50 years after World War II, airman Hank Tillman has much to cherish -- his beloved spouse, his pride in their service to the nation and today, a VFW celebration in his honor.

November 11, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Hank and Betty Tillman will sit side by side as always tonight at the Grasonville VFW hall when Hank is honored for 31 years of distinguished military service through three wars.

They'll hold hands. They'll listen to the old songs of love and longing and partings that the World War II generation still loves: "I'll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces . . ."

Like so many young couples of that era, World War II shaped their lives. Hank and Betty were sweethearts when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; husband and wife before it was over.

Mrs. Tillman still wears the $85 engagement ring he gave her in 1944. These days, his three kids chide him about the tiny diamond. He tells them it's not the size of the diamond that matters.

"It's the size of the commitment in the heart," he says.

Tonight's Veterans Day tribute to Col. Herman "Hank" G. Tillman Jr. at the Grasonville VFW Memorial Post 7464 comes as the last great celebration for the men and women of World War II -- the 50th anniversary of their victory -- wanes into history. Their own mortality looms closer. They prize their memories. They honor their heroes.

Colonel Tillman, who served 31 years as an Air Corps and Air Force officer, is one of Maryland's most decorated veterans. He earned 23 medals during a dedicated, often dangerous career, including a Purple Heart in World War II and a Silver Star in Vietnam.

But he says his wife's the real hero.

Betty Tillman has battled cancer for more than six years. When her leg had to be amputated at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Colonel Tillman took two of his most cherished medals, his Purple Heart and Silver Star, and pinned them onto her hospital pillow.

"I think my wife, for what she's gone through, deserves them a lot more than me," he says. They've been married for 51 years now. They live in a comfortable house on a Kent Island marina filled with photos of their five grandchildren and the mementos and artifacts of their life together.

Mrs. Tillman's a WWII veteran, too. She joined the Coast Guard just after her 20th birthday and worked in the Commandant's office in Washington.

"Why?"

"Patriotism, I guess," she says, which is perhaps why most people joined up in World War II.

Talking to veterans like the Till-mans 50 years after the surrender of the Germans and Japanese, we sometimes forget how young they were when the country went to war. Hank and Betty were hardly more than kids.

They met at a tennis court in Brooklyn in the summer of '39. Elizabeth Brown was 15 1/2 , a junior at Eastern High School, and Herman G. Tillman Jr. was 17, and a senior at Poly. She wasn't quite the girl next door. She lived in the 900 block of Washburn Ave., and he lived four blocks away at Sixth and Pontiac.

Betty thought he was the most arrogant, egotistical guy she'd ever met. But they both went to a Halloween party -- and they walked home together.

"We started holding hands on the streetcar," he says. "No. 6, running on Patapsco Avenue. We told our parents we were going to the library, but we'd meet each other and go somewhere and have an ice cream cone."

Colonel Tillman graduated from the Poly A-course in 1940. He was going to Johns Hopkins University at night when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Six weeks later he was an Army Air Cadet. He got his wings in December 1942, "the Pearl Harbor Anniversary Class."

Keys to a Fortress

He wasn't even 21 yet when the U.S. Army handed him the keys to a B-17 Flying Fortress and told him to take it to North Africa and bomb Germans and Italians.

It wasn't exactly like getting the keys to the family car. In 1942, the Flying Fortress was the world's biggest bomber, manned by a crew of 10, armed with a dozen machine guns and capable of hauling 17,600 pounds of bombs.

Before his 22nd birthday, Colonel Tillman had flown 52 combat missions in B-17s as first pilot, the aircraft commander. He was still 21 when he was promoted to captain; he made major 41 days after he turned 23.

Colonel Tillman earned his Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross on a bombing run over German high command headquarters at Frascati, Italy, on Sept. 8, 1943.

"My plane was shot up pretty bad, one engine out," he says. "I was in deep trouble. Then I got a direct burst on the cockpit and that's how I got my leg all messed up. Two big pieces of shrapnel, one stayed in my leg, one went completely through it."

He stayed at the controls until his plane and crew were safe. He was patched up at Army Hospital near his base at Bizerte, Tunisia.

"Nine days after I was wounded I was back flying a mission," he says. He's still got his WWII log book to prove it.

He flew combat missions for 10 more months before coming home.

Hank Tillman asked Betty Brown to marry him in March 1944, as soon as he arrived back in Baltimore, barely off the train, in a car parked across the street from Penn Station.

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