Darnaby “Don” Wilhoit was my sixth cousin once removed, born in Woodford County, Kentucky, in December of 1922. He was from a prominent Woodford County family — his father served under two governors as Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Financial Institutions and his grandfather had been Woodford County’s sheriff, county judge and postmaster.
I lived in Versailles for several years, and every day I passed the monument on the courthouse grounds, placed there “lest we forget” the local patriots who fought in our country’s wars. Don’s name is engraved there. He was killed flying over England on May 29, 1945.
Don attended Bolles Military School in Jacksonville, Fla. for three years but graduated from the Versailles high school. He entered the University of Kentucky in 1940 and joined the ROTC, Company C, Third Regiment of the National Society of Pershing Rifles. On December 15, 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was inducted on February 24, 1943. He received training at Miami, Fla., and North Carolina State College in Raleigh before being sent to Nashville, Tenn., where he was classified for training as a fighter pilot and sent to Americus, Ga., and later to Greenwood, Miss. For his advanced training he went to Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Ala., and Napier Field in Dothan, Ga., where he was commissioned a flight officer and given his silver wings as a pilot in the Air Forces His final training was received at Dale Maybry Field, Tallahassee, Fla., and in Fort Myers, Fla., after which he was sent overseas, departing Taunton, Mass. aboard the ship “West Point” bound for Europe.
Flight Officer Wilhoit was sent to Debden Field, Cambridge, to join the 336th fighter squadron. Don completed two combat missions over Germany before the war ended.
The Woodford Sun of May 25, 2006, wrote:
Although Darnaby Wilhoit served late in the war and died after Germany surrendered, he flew with a top group of young men who proved to be the elite fighter pilots of the American Forces, the 4th Fighter Group, 336 Squadron. The 4th Fighter Group was formed out of the “Eagle Squadrons,” three squadrons of American volunteer pilots who flew and fought for Britain in 1940 and 1941. In 1942, these pilots were officially transferred to the United States Army Air Force. While retaining many of their British customs and terminology, the 4th Fighter Group remained the premier fighter outfit in the European Theater of Operations. The 4th Fighter Group achieved the most victories over enemy aircraft of any group in the war, with 1,016 enemy aircraft destroyed.
Wilhoit joined the 4th Fighter Group on March 24, 1945, but did not see the war’s end. The weather continued to be a formidable and deadly opponent in day-to-day operations, even after the end of hostilities with Germany’s surrender. An estimated 2/3 of all allied aircrew casualties were attributed to causes other than enemy action, such as poor weather, training accidents, and flying accidents. Like many aviators who trained in the southern United States, Wilhoit completed his final training in Tallahassee, Florida, where the clear Florida weather was not to be compared with that in England.
A decision was made to transfer twelve surplus aircraft of the 336th Fighter Squadron from Debden, Essex, for use elsewhere. They were to be flown to Speke Air Depot near Liverpool, crated and sent to the U.S. 1st Lt. Harold H. Fredericks and Flight Officer Wilhoit were two of the pilots who volunteered to fly the P-51D Mustangs to Speke. Lt. Fredericks was to be the flight leader.
By 10:00 hours on May 29, 1945, all twelve planes were in the air, in formation, heading for the Northwest Coast, a distance of 160 miles. But the flight plan did not take into account the high ground of Derbyshire, or the poor weather and smog in the industrial North West of England. Near Leicester they encountered thick clouds; Lt. Fredericks instructed the flight to climb to 6,000 feet, and the ground was no longer in sight. Lt. Fredericks was the only pilot with a working radio, but his efforts to communicate with Speke were unsuccessful.
Fifty-five minutes had passed and ice was forming on their wings; Lt. Fredericks estimated that they should be over Speke and ordered a descent, warning the pilots to watch for drones. Lt. Beacham Brooker, pilot of the No. 3 aircraft, recalled the events that followed: “As we were letting down through the overcast, Fredericks’ plane suddenly disintegrated in front of me and a ball of fire flung my plane to one side. Immediately I pulled up out of the soup and found that my aircraft was difficult to handle. Looking out at my port wing, I saw the reason why – two feet had been ripped away.” Fredericks was the first casualty of the day, but Brooker was able to keep his aircraft in the air; landing back at Debden, he climbed out of the cockpit shaken and vowed never to fly again.
Some of the other aircraft which had descended through the clouds were able to find Speke, even in poor visibility. Some opted for climbing back up and looking for another opening; others became separated and turned back to Debden.
Flight Officer Wilhoit opted for descent while still over the hills. Witnesses on the ground saw his Mustang “break cloud at a low altitude, turn hastily, as if to avoid a hill” before it struck the ground at Plainsteads Farm, south of Glossop in Derbyshire. He became the last fatality of the 4th Fighter Group in WW II at 10:54, according to his watch which stopped on impact.
Don was originally interred at Cambridge but was later moved to the cemetery in Versailles, Kentucky. He was awarded the Purple Heart. In addition to the monument honoring Woodford County veterans, Wilhoit’s name is included on a monument at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, which honors the Fourth Fighter Group.