Kilmer S. Bortz, a decorated World War II naval aviator whose flying skills helped sink a Japanese aircraft carrier and battleship, died of heart failure Wednesday at his Lutherville home. He was 87.
Mr. Bortz was born in Akron, Ohio, and moved with his family to Washington, where he graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. His college studies at Duke University were interrupted when he enlisted in the Navy in 1941.
After completing flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Mr. Bortz was assigned to Bombing Squadron 11 or VB-11, where he flew Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers during the Guadalcanal campaign.
In 1943, Mr. Bortz returned to the Wildwood, N.J., Naval Air Station, where, along with other veteran and talented combat pilots, he formed Bombing Squad 13 or VB-13, which went on to become one of the most decorated squadrons in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
After training on the new Curtis Helldivers, the Dauntless' replacement, Mr. Bortz and his squad members were assigned in 1944 to the aircraft carrier USS Franklin, whose first combat was the first Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. In late October, as a Japanese task force steamed south toward Leyte, a province in the Philippines, VB-13 pilots - including Mr. Bortz, a division leader - flew on a mission in which they located and sank the Japanese battleship Musashi and also inflicted heavy damage to the carrier Chiyoda, which was later sent to the bottom by fire from a U.S. cruiser.
"We set out early on a search-and-destroy mission. I led a division of six, and Kilmer was a leader of six planes. Just north of us, he ran right into the battleship, dove on it and hit it. Going through all that anti-aircraft fire is quite a feat," said Dr. Joseph J. Eisenhuth of State College, Pa., a retired aerospace engineer and VB-13 pilot. "And then the next day, we were chasing carriers."
As part of Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey's Task Force 38, the Franklin participated in the interception of the enemy task force, which they encountered off Luzon. The carrier pilots' challenge was to destroy the enemy task force of four carriers, two battleships, three cruisers and six destroyers.
"VB-13's pilots knew that tomorrow would bring the opportunity that every dive bomber savored as priority one - dropping a bomb on a Japanese flat top!" said an account of the squadron's actions published by the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. "This engagement was to go down as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where more ships were engaged in mortal battle than ever before in naval history. Nor has the world ever seen such a sea battle of such proportions since," according to the account.
"Kilmer was an excellent pilot. He was calm, cool and collected, and didn't talk much. While he may not have been outgoing, he was a solid friend," said Richard R. Harding of Lexington, Mass., a former VB-13 pilot who had been Mr. Bortz's roommate.
Dr. Eisenhuth recalled that Mr. Bortz had to bail out only once, during a training mission. "We were playing follow-the-leader, and this guy got too close and chewed off Kilmer's tail, forcing him to bail out," he said with a laugh. He added: "As a pilot, he was a good one, and I'm sorry to hear about Kilmer. With his death, there aren't many of us left from VB-13."
Mr. Bortz, who was honorably discharged with the rank of lieutenant, was awarded two Navy Crosses and three Air Medals for contributing to sinking a battleship and carrier.
By the end of the war, VB-13's airmen were awarded a total of 22 Navy Crosses, a Silver Star, 25 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 149 Air Medals. "He really didn't talk about the war very much," said his wife of 31 years, the former Gloria Krout.
After the war, he returned to Duke, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1946. He went to work for Western Pest Services in Washington and moved to Baltimore when he was named the company's branch manager in 1962. He retired in 1982.
Mr. Bortz was a volunteer driver for the American Cancer Society and was an active member of Towson United Methodist Church for 40 years. He was a Colts and Ravens fan and a longtime member of the Oriole Advocates. He enjoyed golfing and contract bridge, and was a member of the Hillendale Country Club and Hunt Valley Golf Club.
Services were Saturday.
Also surviving are three sons, William K. Bortz of Washington, John R. Bortz of Owings and Scott C. Bortz of Charlotte, N.C.; two stepsons, Howard Lamborn of Parkton and Jamie Brookhart of Parkville; two stepdaughters, Martha Lamborn of Mount Airy and Tammy Ward of Phoenix in Baltimore County; 15 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.