William C. Wilburn, 87, engineer, combat pilot

May 09, 2006

William C. Wilburn, a retired career naval officer, engineer and World War II combat pilot, died of complications from Parkinson's disease Wednesday at Roland Park Place. He was 87.

He was born in Selma, Ala., and raised in nearby Hale County, Ala., where his father was a principal and later superintendent of schools.

After earning a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala., in 1941, he briefly taught school.

He enlisted in the Navy in 1942.

"They asked if he were a college graduate, but at the time they had no openings in Officer Candidate School, so they suggested he try naval aviation, which was funny because he had never been on an airplane in his life," said his wife of 62 years, the former Elizabeth T. Pfeiffer.

After earning his wings, he was assigned to the South Pacific and the carrier USS Essex, where he flew combat missions at Truk Lagoon and Kwajalein Atoll.

After the war, he remained in the Navy and was sent to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1947.

He held engineering positions at naval air stations in San Diego, Calif., and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

From 1963 until his retirement with the rank of commander in 1966, he served in Paris on the staff of Thomas Finletter, who had been the second secretary of the Air Force and later was U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Commander Wilburn worked in the engineering department of General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Texas, for a decade before retiring a second time in 1976.

An opera buff, he enjoyed attending the opera as well as listening to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera Company from New York.

"He'd tell people, `Don't call me on Saturday afternoon because I'm listening to the opera and not answering the phone,'" Mrs. Wilburn said with a laugh.

Commander Wilburn enjoyed growing vegetables, arranging flowers, and travel.

Graveside services with full military honors will be held at 11 a.m. May 19 at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Also surviving are two sons, William Karl Wilburn of Chevy Chase and Richard Thomas Wilburn of Arlington, Va.; a daughter, Anne Wilburn Wilson of Brooklyn; two sisters, Rebecca W. Armstrong of Beltsville and Marion W. Morel of Bradenton, Fla.; and eight grandchildren.

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