Today on the north side of Rock Hill, a guy named Bill Wilkerson turns 90 years old. He flew so many missions in World War II, 60, including two on D-Day itself in June 1944, that he never thought he’d see his 21st birthday.
Wilkerson’s planes crashed three times. One time the plane made it back just over the Cliffs of Dover, back to England, before disintegrating in a field. Wilkerson somehow survived each crash.
“I never knew if that mission I was on would be the last one,” Wilkerson said. “I didn’t know if there would be another birthday. Every one of those missions, somebody seemed to get killed. Every day after, it was something to just be alive.”
On the south side of Rock Hill, a kid named Ayden Curbeam turns 1 today. He was born two months premature on July 11, 2012 – just 2 pounds. He spent weeks in a hospital, and his survival was never for sure.
Ayden Curbeam is now almost walking, weighs more than 20 pounds, and is saying “da-da.”
“Every day we have with him is a treasure that he is alive and perfect,” said Ayden’s father, Dennis Curbeam.
After enlisting in the Army after high school, Bill Wilkerson was stationed in Charlotte and became a top turret gunner on A-20 bomber/fighter airplanes. He took time to woo a beauty named Joyce Faile, from outside Lancaster, after eyeing her at a Charlotte skating rink.
“I knew the minute I saw her I would marry her,” said Wilkerson.
First, he left for only the most dangerous job in a world at war.
He is asked how many times his plane was shot, damaged, hit, in all those five dozen missions over almost a year in France and Germany.
“Every single one of them,” Wilkerson said.
Some of the shrapnel pieces from Nazi 88-millimeter anti-aircraft shells that tore through the glass of his turret were big as footballs. The plane would somehow hold together, Wilkerson alone in that dome at the top of the plane.
“I’m not the first one to say it, but it’s true: If people like my father didn’t volunteer, take on the toughest, most dangerous combat in the world, against a terrible enemy, we would all be speaking German,” said son Billy, a Vietnam War combat veteran himself.
Somehow, Bill Wilkerson walked away from each shot, each crash. He did not walk away unscathed, however.
He came back to America and married that Joyce Faile, and they had three kids. Bill worked as a meat cutter at the Air Force commissary near Charleston, running the market for decades. Retired, he has lived for almost 70 years with disability from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that came from all that flying, all that pressure, all those bombs and bullets and rockets that hit his plane.
And after 68 years of marriage, he cares for his wife, Joyce. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Bill Wilkerson does not leave her side, except for errands to the drugstore or the doctor.
When Ayden Curbeam was born last year, his engaged parents, Alicia Wilson and Dennis Curbeam, had to put off the wedding. The baby was so small. Finally, in late August, on his mother’s birthday, Ayden came home.
He was tiny still. But after a year, and “eating like a horse,” according to family, Ayden Curbeam has grown from tiny “miracle baby” to a little toddler who is healthy and as big as any kid his age, according to his mother.
“He came so early, he was so small, so little, that we just can’t believe that he has come so far to now be a year old,” said Alicia Wilson, who works as an emergency medical technician on an ambulance. “He has surpassed most of the levels for children his age.”
But Ayden was so small at first that he got a nickname from the beginning: “Peanut.” The name has stuck.
It will stick right through today, when Ayden and everybody who knows him and his family celebrate a birthday that nobody was ever certain would arrive. The whole family is going to the beach for a weekend celebration.
Another party, too
On another side of Rock Hill, family will arrive from Lancaster County, from as far away as Texas and other places, to celebrate Bill Wilkerson’s birthday. All will eat grilled steaks and cake and wonder how a guy could survive those huge shells, coming straight at him in the sky, that surely would blow him into oblivion.
But did not.
“It was like death itself coming straight at you,” said Wilkerson.
He has cases of medals, including one from the president of France. All honor valor as great as any in history.
There are clusters for missions and stars and old pictures to look through.
“Every one of those men, they were young and they volunteered, and they didn’t know if they would ever see another birthday after the flight missions started,” Wilkerson said.
He pointed at an old picture of his Ninth Army Air Corps unit, filled with lean, rangy faces of World War II heroes.
“Lots of ‘em didn’t have birthdays after this picture,” Wilkerson said. “They got killed.”
It was left to people such as Wilkerson to honor all the dead afterward through the thrilling fact of being alive and having birthdays.
“I’m no hero” said Bill Wilkerson. “The others are heroes.”
But the truth is, Bill Wilkerson is a war hero, reluctant or not, who in his devotion to his wife is still a hero today.
Like the Curbeam celebration, the Wilkerson family will be about a birthday that very possibly was not supposed to happen.
It will be joyous at both parties. There will be smiles, and tears, and thanks, from families who celebrate lives that almost weren’t.