Center’s oldest alum shares war stories

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Raymond Hoy
  • National Air and Space Intelligence Center Public Affairs
The history of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center is one that had a direct impact on the air war in World War II, and indeed every air war since. The Center’s foundation in foreign military exploitation allowed it to examine the Axis war machine up close as examples of its aircraft and armament made its way back to the United States after being captured by front-line troops beginning in 1943.

One person who had a chance to see NASIC’s evolution from those early days is 97-year-old Victor Bilek, the Center’s oldest living alum. From armament testing to briefing some of the Air Force’s most historical figures, Bilek is a rare window into the history of the Center, and the Air Force.

The Tacoma, Washington, native commissioned into the Army June 14, 1941, as an artillery officer. However, based on his signature expressing an interest in engineering while in ROTC, he was transferred into the Army Air Force a few months later. The transfer sent him to Wright Field to work in the Armament Laboratory for what was supposed to be one year. He was moved to the bombing section of the laboratory based solely on the fact that he had flown on an airplane.

Bilek left the military as a major after WWII. He then started his civilian time at Wright Field. With the beginning of the Korean War, the military called him back to active duty. Bilek considered staying in the military when his commitment was over, but decided it was best for his career and his family if he stayed at Wright Field as a civil servant.

Like most surviving WWII veterans, Bilek is full of stories. With clear recollection, he relayed those stories to a packed house when he recently visited NASIC. A handful of those stories are below.

The time I flew on the wing tip of a B-17

While assigned to the armament laboratory, Bilek and his team were responsible for coming up with ideas to make America’s fleet of airplanes more lethal and better protected. Feedback came in from the field so fast, that the planes would fly from the assembly line straight to a modification center.

“I had a young enlisted engineer working for me who thought up the idea that if you had your gunners out on the wing tips instead of the fuselage, they’d have a full 360 degree view of the aircraft; you’d have no blind spots on the plane, which was a big problem back then. We had pods installed on the wing tips and the gunner would sit inside. They would remotely operate the guns at the center of the plane.

“Well, the idea had to be tested, and I got to be one of the handful of people to try it. Most people thought it would be a really disorienting thing, but while I was flying on the outside of the plane, I got the distinct feeling that the plane was actually flying around me. It was quite an experience; probably the most fun thing I ever had.”

Bilek did so much flying while at Wright Field he had more flying hours as a non-rated officer than any other person on the installation.

Seeing firsthand what the Germans were capable of

Besides the German documents, Bilek was able to examine and reverse engineer much of the German armament that came to Wright Field. One of his most memorable moments was his chance to work on the MK-108, the cannon for the German Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first operational jet aircraft.

“I was asked to set up a weapons test of the MK-108 cannon from the German Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe. We set up a B-24 out on the range and had a team observe the firing of one shot at the tail of the B-24. The projectile entered the tail and exploded, sending out a fan of shrapnel that damaged just about every structural component on the plane. If it was in the air, that B-24 would've come apart. And that was from just one round.

“We were all awestruck. There were about 50 of us out there conducting and observing the test and everybody couldn't believe what the shot had done. We had done similar tests with 50mm and 20mm rounds and we didn't get anywhere near the lethality of that round.”

On Project Football and working with the Germans

Bilek’s first job as a civilian at Wright Field was working on Project Football with T-2 Intelligence, an early iteration of NASIC. The project involved working alongside some of the 200 plus German scientists who were brought back to the United States in Operation Paperclip.

“Our engineers were complaining because the librarians were taking too long to process all the paperwork brought back from the front lines. So they assigned each of us engineers with two German scientists to finish processing the paperwork quicker.

“It was a real thrill working with scientists of that stature. Many of them were world famous in their fields. We worked with an older German scientist and he would get several of us younger officers together at lunch and talk to us about science and engineering. He told us the difference between an American engineer and a German engineer was that the Americans had reference books they would go to for information and the Germans had everything they needed memorized.

“We would pose engineering questions as well, like the engineering involved in moving a certain amount of soil from a given area. Given the specifics, like soil type, equipment available, etc., how much power would be required? All of us local boys got out our slide rulers and our text books and got going on the work. We had no more than put pen to paper when the German said, 'Well, I have the answer for you.' We said, 'How did you get the answer so fast?' He said, 'I converted the whole problem to metrics and solved it in my head. It took us a while to check it, but he was right.”

“The engineering I saw during five years in WWII, these Germans were head and shoulders beyond us. They were ahead of us in every aspect of engineering; and their technology wasn't from foreign materiel exploitation of spying, this was of their own design. It was a testament to the imagination and the engineering ability to back it up.

“Many of these engineers went on to make huge contributions to the American aviation industry.”

Dropping a Top Secret briefing in the Chesapeake Bay

Bilek briefed extensively around the world. His contemporaries found him to be very persuasive. He briefed many historical Air Force figures, like Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the second Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and Gen. Curtis LeMay, the fifth CSAF and the legendary commander of Strategic Air Command. During one particular briefing, Bilek impressed Vandenberg so much, he asked him to brief a group of civilian air industry types at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

“We flew in an AT-11 (a WWII era training bomber). For matters of convenience, we loaded the 30” x 40” briefing in the bomb bay. Well, on the way up to New York, the bomb bay doors on the old plane vibrated open and we jettisoned the briefing into the Chesapeake Bay.

“Well, the problem was that the briefing had Top Secret content in it. Boy that caused a ruckus. We had every kind of local, state and military authorities scouring the bay to find this briefing. It couldn't be found and a senior officer made the conclusion that it wasn't a security risk lying at the bottom of the bay. So we had to get new poster boards and markers and recreate the briefing from memory.”

The time I found General LeMay sitting at my desk

“General LeMay stopped by our section one day because his brother-in-law worked for me. I was in the hangar working on a P-61 armament when my secretary came out and said, 'There's an officer at your desk waiting for you. I think you'd better come, he's got lots of stars.' So I'm wiping grease off my hands while I walk in my office and there's General Curt LeMay sitting at my desk smoking his cigar.

“He said he was on his way to take over the 20th Air Force and had a couple technical questions for me. Well, he asked a couple questions and I gave him a couple answers, he said thanks and walked out. A short while later, somebody who worked for the commander ran into the office and said, 'We heard General LeMay was in here!' I nodded. ‘How come you didn't take him down to introduce him to the commander?’ I said, ‘I didn't take him anywhere. He came and sat at my desk, when he was through he left. I wasn't about to be taking him anywhere.’”

Hunting from the hood of the general’s Jeep

One of the things Bilek recognized was how different the military is now compared to when he entered the service, especially concerning his interactions with his commanding officers.

“As a second lieutenant, it took no time to be invited to the officers club with the commander and later be invited to his home. I was also an avid shooter and was invited to hunt rabbits with him right out on Wright Field.

“I was a member of (Brig. Gen. Harold) Watson's (one of the first commanders of what would become NASIC) briefing team. When he retired, I was regularly invited to his home for get-togethers. I knew Mrs. Watson as well. I was also one of the first participants to dine at his restaurant, Stockyards, which was just south of the base. We were not obliged to go, but it was strongly suggested that it would help his business if we did.

“Then there was the time I was in Alamogordo and a general officer took me out shooting. I was shooting jack rabbits from the hood of his jeep while he was driving. I don't know if that's a common thing anymore.”

No sir, it is not.

It takes initiative

At the onset of Vietnam, Bilek was in charge of trying to acquire additional equipment, money and personnel. During a briefing in Washington, D.C., with a team trying to decide how to set up battle damage assessment operations, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

“I was listening to all these ideas, and decided to take my usual initiative. I raised my hand in the middle of the briefing and said, 'You know, we did all of this in WWII. It all died out after the war, but you guys are trying to proverbially reinvent the wheel all over again.' The chairman of the meeting stopped and thought about it and said, 'We now have our chairman of the Joint Services Battle Damage Program in Vietnam.'”

Say goodnight Gracie

When the Vietnam War slowed down, the service dissolved Bilek’s position leaving him with bleak options.

“The different programs available to me at the time didn't sound too attractive. The director told me, 'You either have to take it as it is or take an early retirement.' I said, 'I'm outta here!'”

“I was 54 years old. I took a little penalty in my retirement and had no idea it was going to last 43 years.”

The final chapter

Due to a series of coincidences, his one year assignment to Wright Field ultimately turned into 32 years and allowed him to work with some of the world’s most brilliant engineers at the time. His opportunity to speak to the next generation of puts joy in his day. His daughters and granddaughters enjoy seeing him being engaged and still doing the things he enjoys.

“It was just an unbelievable honor and pleasure to come and talk with the new generation at NASIC. I laboriously created 40 briefing cards in preparation for the talk, but I didn't use any of them. It was well received and I enjoyed doing it. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”