At the tender age of 17 years and 13 days, Hilliard reported to the U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force Recruiting Station in Atlanta where he enlisted for four years in the U.S. Air Force. Basic Training began at Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas. A letter to his parents dated Dec. 11, 1950 stated that he was thinking of going through Air Police training at Tyndall AFB in Florida.
The following March, Hilliard was assigned to the 43rd Air Police Squadron, part of the Strategic Air Command at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. He served as an Air Policeman throughout his four year enlistment and had Temporary Duty Assignments to Guam, French Morocco and England during the Korean War era.
In August 1953, he was awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal (The United States Air Force had just became a separate military service on September 18, 1947 and the Air Force Good Conduct Medal was not created until 1963.) By 1954, he had been promoted to Airman 1st Class and he wrote letters home saying he was interested in re-enlisting. He was dreaming about flying!
After passing the Aircrew Test Battery, he was accepted for the Aviation Cadet - Officer Candidate Training Program. Flight training was divided into 3 stages: Pre-Flight (Observer School & Navigation Training at Lackland AFB, TX), Primary (Learning to Fly at Hondo AFB, TX) and Basic (Jets at Laredo AFB, TX). He received his wings and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and was honored as a Distinguished Graduate on June 15, 1955, with the Class 55-P. After graduation from Aviation Cadets, he was sent to Basic Instructor School at Craig AFB in Selma, Alabama.
The PA-18 Piper Cub was the first airplane he learned to fly. His solo flight was on July 19, 1954. A letter to his parents from his instructor, Mr. Camp, stated, “He did a very fine job of it and I was justly proud of him. I have been rather closely associated with Hilliard since the first part of July, and I thought you would be pleased to know that I have found him to be an extremely well behaved young man and very cooperative in every respect. He is trying very hard and his diligent application is paying him dividends as is evident by his success thus far in the training program.” After the PA-18 came the T-6 Texan Trainer and then…JETS.
His first duty as an officer was a T-33 instructor pilot at Greenville AFB, Mississippi with the 3506th Pilot Training Squadron. At 22 years old, 1st Lieutenant Wilbanks taught young men how to fly. From a letter dated November 6th, “I thought I didn’t know too much about flying but after flying with a student here in basic, I feel that I am pretty sharp. I am pretty sure I am going to like this place and instructing just fine.”
While stationed at Greenville in 1956, he met and married Rosemary Arnold. In 1959, he was sent to Maintenance Officer School at Chanute AFB, Illinois in preparation for the next three-year assignment at America’s “Farthest North” Air Force Base at Eielson AFB, Alaska. He qualified as an F-86 Sabre test pilot and served as an Aircraft Maintenance Officer. He earned his Captain bars while assigned to the 5010th Maintenance and Supply Group in Alaska in 1961 and a month later, their first son was born.
In 1962, he received orders for Nellis AFB in Nevada where he served as a Flight Line Maintenance Officer on the F-105 fighter-bomber “Thunderchief”. Their first daughter was born while living in Nevada.
The Southeast Asia assignment came with orders to serve as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) in Vietnam flying the Bird Dog, a small Cessna type unarmed aircraft. After FAC training at Hurlburt Field in Florida and an intense survival school in the desert, he departed the United States on March 30, 1966.
Two weeks later, their twins were born, a son and daughter that he would never get to see.
Captain Wilbanks arrived at Pleiku Air Base, Republic of South Vietnam and completed an in-country check-out flying the O-1 Bird Dog. The Bird Dog could reach 150 mph in an emergency, but the normal cruising speed was 104 mph. The plane had two seats, but Forward Air Controllers usually flew alone. The Bird Dog carried no ordnance except four white phosphorous smoke rockets, used to mark targets. Small-arms fire from the ground could easily penetrate the cockpit. His only weapon was an M-16 that he carried for self-defense in case his plane was shot down and he had to defend himself on the ground.
The FAC’s job was to fly low and slow, conducting visual reconnaissance in the same area each day. They became familiar with the terrain and would notice if any significant changes took place. They knew the places where enemy forces might hide. To help other pilots put their ordnance on target, and to lessen the risk of hitting allied forces and civilians, the rules of engagement required that all ground attack strikes in South Vietnam be directed by a Forward Air Controller.
Captain Wilbanks was assigned to the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron at Nha Trang, but he reported to the Air Liaison Officer for the southern Central Highlands provinces, Lt. Col. Norman Mueller. Attached to the US Army Advisory Team headquartered at Ban Me Thuot and working with the South Vietnamese 23rd Ranger Division, Lt. Col. Mueller and his FACs were responsible for the southern half of II Corps, the largest of the four military regions in South Vietnam. They flew numerous missions every day. Hilliard's duty stations included Ban Me Thuot, Bao Loc, and Dalat.
By Feb. 24, 1967, Captain Wilbanks had flown 487 combat missions. He had already earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and 19 Air Medals (one Air Medal equals twenty-five combat missions. He was scheduled to finish his tour and leave Vietnam in March. He was eager to see his wife and four children. He had survived eleven months of dangerous duty. His 488th mission was his last. His courage and heroic action saved many lives that day, and he posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his heroic action.
On March 3, 1967, his funeral services were held at Glen Allan Methodist Church in Glen Allan, Mississippi with interment at Fayette Methodist Cemetery in Fayette, Mississippi.
Copyright 2014 Hilliard A Wilbanks Foundation, Inc.