Sunday, December 5, 2021

1953: Original Member of the Ga. ANG, Veteran Pilot of World War II and Korea Killed in Crash

By Maj. William Carraway

Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

Georgia Air National Guard T-33s on the tarmac at Dobbins Air Force Base. Inset: Lt. Col. Walter Armistead in 1953. Georgia National Guard Archives.

On Dec. 5, 1953, during a severe weather event, a T-33 piloted by Lt. Col. Walter Armistead slammed into the ground while on approach to Travis Field. Armistead was killed on impact.

Armistead, 1942.

Walter Moore Armistead was born in Birmingham, Ala. June 15, 1921 to John and Bessie Armistead. By 1934 the family had moved to Atlanta and Armistead worked on William B. Hartsfield’s successful 1936 campaign for Mayor of Atlanta. Armistead graduated from North Fulton High School in 1938 and was accepted into Georgia Tech. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps January 3, 1942 in Atlanta, Ga. and was stationed at MacDill Field in Tampa, Fla. In August, he transferred to the Air Corps and the following month was one of four hundred aviation cadets in his class of 3,500 selected to go from pre-flight training at Kelley Field, Texas into an instructor’s course designed to make them second lieutenants in five weeks.[1] He graduated from flight training at Randolph Army Airfield in San Antonio Texas Dec. 13, 1942.[2] Armistead was assigned to advanced flying school at Foster Field in Texas where he served as an instructor for instrument and combat flying.[3] On April 24 he was assigned to the 339th Fighter Group, 505th Fighter Squadron in Europe. Armistead flew the P-51 Mustang out of Fowlmere, England conducting bomber escort and strafing missions over occupied France. On June 17, 1944 was assigned to strafe railroads and communication facilities in France. While diving to make a gun run, the Mustang’s engine stalled out. Armistead bailed out over Chateaudon. and landed in a farmer’s field. Captured, Armistead was interrogated at the town’s police station then transported to Frankfort Germany where he was interrogated again. He was interred at Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang Prussia 54-12, the same prison in which British actor Donald Pleasance was held.

In 1945, the prison was liberated by the Soviet Army. Rather than stay at the camp, Armistead and three other prisoners set out on foot walking west in hopes of reaching U.S. lines. After two days of walking, a Soviet Soldier presented them with a horse and buggy which the Soldiers drove for a day before resuming their long walk eventually reaching British lines at Weismar where they received transportation to London.[4]

1st Lt. Walter Armistead's P-51 Mustang in England in 1942.

Armistead reported to a replacement depot intent on deployment to the Pacific; however, the war ended before he was assigned to a new unit.

On August 25, 1946, Armistead was commissioned a captain in the newly organized Georgia Air National Guard. He was one of the first 12 officers commissioned into the air units of the Ga. NG along with future generals Bernard Davey and Joel B. Paris.[5] He was called to active service with the 158th Fighter Squadron in 1950 and served in Korea, returning to the United States the following year.

By 1953, Lt. Col. Armistead was assigned as commander of the permanent field training detachment at Travis Airfield in Savannah[6] while concurrently serving as director of operations for the 116th Fighter Bomber Wing.[7] On the evening of December 5, 1953 he was piloting a Ga. ANG T-33 on approach to Travis Field. Armistead made routine contact with the tower and despite the severe weather and instrument flight conditions there was no indication of any trouble and Armistead, a veteran of more than 3,000 flight hours was skilled instrument pilot. While approaching Savannah from the southeast Armistead’s aircraft slammed into Wassah Island, a marshy sea island. More than a day would pass before responders reached the crash site.

Armistead was buried with full military honors in Oak Hill Cemetery in Birmingham, Ala. Among his pallbearers were fellow Ga. ANG pilots Bernard Davey, Charles Thompson and Phil Coleman.[8] In 1955 the City of Savannah dedicated Armistead Avenue in his honor.[9]

[1] “Atlantan Chosen for Flight Training.” Atlanta Constitution. Sept. 11, 1942, 18.

[2] “Flying Schools Will Graduate 52 Georgians Today.” Atlanta Constitution. Dec. 13, 1942, 22.

[3] “Five Georgians War Casualties.” Atlanta Constitution. June 29, 1944, 5.

[4] “Armistead Home.” Atlanta Constitution. July 15, 1945, 10.

[5] “Dozen Atlantans Flying Officers.” Atlanta Constitution. August 25, 1946, 2.

[6] “Air National Guard Camp Dates Set at Travis 26 July-9 August. The Georgia Guardsman. February, 1953, 4.

[7] “Wing Pre-Training Conference Reveals ANG Defense Mission.” Georgia National Guard. May June 1953,4.

[8] “Col. W. R. Armistead.” Birmingham News. Dec. 7, 1953, 7.

[9] “Posthumous Honors Bestowed ANG Pilots by City of Savannah in Naming of Streets.” The Georgia Guardsman. March April May 1955, 16.

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