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Elmer Wilson Koonce: 1916-2012

WWII Pilot, Building Contractor, United Boys & Girls Club Chair


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lt. Elmer Wilson Koonce (aka The Falcon, The Sultan of Summerland, and Uncle Bud) passed peacefully, on his 96th birthday, at his home in Santa Barbara, surrounded by loved ones.

He was born July 23, 1916, in the farming community of Villa Ridge, Illinois, to Elmer Jacob Koonce and Lora Dell Horrell Koonce. He was the youngest of six children including Clarence Philip (C.P.) Koonce, Harry Ross Koonce, Edward Nicholas Koonce, Vera Ruth Lewis, and Ida Marie Dickerson. The family was of such modest means, he didn’t own shoes until an uncle willed him a pair when he was in high school. As a boy, he worked in a lumber mill, and as a young man, he became an accountant. He was first married to Marie Copeland, in 1944. He remarried on June 17, 1966, to Marian North Hill, the love of his life and best friend for over 46 years. Between them, they had seven children, 12 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

Click to enlarge photo

Elmer joined the U.S. Army Reserves before the age of 18, by obfuscating his date of birth on the application form. A seasoned reservist by WWII, Elmer wanted to join the U.S. Army Air Force but learned he could not meet the requirements for flight school. So, while some men were going to Canada to avoid the draft, Elmer joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he became a pilot.

Soon after, he transferred to the U.S. Army Air Force. He was assigned to Coastal Patrol duty with the Liberator Bomber Combat Crew in Portland, Oregon, where he also became an explosives expert. When the war effort shifted to the Pacific theater, Elmer was reassigned to the 7th Army Air Force, 41st Bomb Group, under the command of Major General Willis H. Hale.

This was a ragtag bunch known as “Hale’s Handful,” cobbled together from remnants of fractured bomb groups from the European theater and elsewhere. He piloted B-25 bombers through 50 missions in the South Pacific theater in 1943 and 1944. During this time, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism or extraordinary achievement in aerial flight. Four times he was awarded Air Medals for meritorious achievement in aerial flight, one of which included a Valor Device for acts of heroism. He earned an Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service, a World War II Victory Medal, and an Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with three Bronze Star Devices for participation in bombing campaigns in the Gilbert, Marshall, and Mariana Islands. He was involved in what he believed to be the longest air-to-air battle in aviation history at the time, defending against successive waves of Japanese fighter planes for over 75 minutes. After his tour of duty in the Pacific theater, he took an assignment aiding in the training of Chinese pilots under the command of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

After the war, he enjoyed much success as a building contractor and real estate investor. During his retirement, he was known for growing avocados and macadamia nuts, raising and showing miniature horses, and raising ostriches. Well into his sixties, he took an interest in computers, teaching himself programming languages such as FORTRAN and COBOL in an effort to streamline his own business operations. At the age of 84, he acted as the general contractor on the construction of his youngest son’s home and was onsite every day overseeing every detail. He served on the citizens advisory board for Bank of America. He served on the board of directors of the Republican Central Committee, and on the board of the United Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara County for 20 years, most of this time as chairman. Elmer was twice appointed to the board of directors for the 19th District Agricultural Association (Earl Warren Showgrounds), first by Governor George Deukmejian in 1989 and again by Governor Pete Wilson in 1993. All the while, he quietly nurtured many young people in need of mentoring.

A memorial service was held on Saturday, August 18, with full military honors, including an aerial tribute of WWII-era planes flying in missing-man formation, all arranged by John and Hazel Blankenship of the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum and Library. The family would also like to thank Natalia Bliss Ealand, Pablo and Graciela Martinez, and Hospice of Santa Barbara for their invaluable support. Memorial contributions may be sent to the United Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara County, the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum and Library, or Life Chronicles.

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