by lyle e davis
It was another beautiful clear sky that Wednesday, the 28th of November, 1951. The kind of day when kids daydream and look to the sky . . and dream. On this day, however, they weren’t dreaming. These fourth grade students from Valley Center Union School were watching a Navy Corsair doing aerobatic maneuvers in the sky. The plane would do a slow roll . . . then a loop-the-loop. That pilot sure knew his stuff! What fun that must be, flying high above the earth, doing aerobatics . . . testing the limits of his plane.
The Korean War was underway so this pilot was probably being trained for that conflict and would soon be shipped overseas, they thought. The group of fourth grade students were enjoying the aerial demonstration . . . they’d watch in awe as the pilot would go into another low roll . . another loop . . . and then something strange happened. For no apparent reason, the plane dropped its nose and began a steep dive. What a show this pilot was putting on for these fourth-graders!
But now they realized he was coming straight for the ground and he was getting lower and lower, and going way too fast! They soon realized this plane was not going to leave this dive . . . it was going to crash.
About 1/4 mile away from the school the Corsair impacted Mother Earth with so much force that the earth shook. It crashed on what was then the Harley and Pearl Holdredge Turkey Ranch.
As reported in the San Diego Union in its Thursday, November 29th edition:
“(The plane) came down like a bullet and you could hear it whine,” said Howard Smith and John Billigmeier, both of Valley Center. “It blew up with a loud roar when it hit and covered the whole area with fire,” Smith added.
Billigmeier told this story:
“The pilot was up about 5000 feet, doing barrel rolls, dives and all kinds of maneuvers. Then he went straight up and did a loop and turned over.
He was coming straight down then. I couldn’t hear the motor. He kept coming. When he was about 700 or 800 feet he got the motor revved up again, and raced it and tried to get out of the dive, I suppose. But he couldn’t.”
When he crashed there was an explosion and it seemed like the air was on fire. I got over there with Smith as soon as I could--maybe in two mintues. But it was too late.”
From the then Escondido Times Advocate:
“E. L. Powell, resident of the adjacent Valley Stream Ranch, saw the accident and phoned Escondido police at 10:32 a.m. He said, “I saw him stunting. All of a sudden he looked like he was going into a power dive. I thought he was doing it on purpose. He just seemed to bear right down. But he didn’t pull out of it. Finally, he just bored into the ground and exploded and burst into flames.”
Some 200 children were attending school that day. Many believe the pilot intentionally stayed with his plane so as to avoid hitting the school and endangering its students.
T. E. Connors, foreman of the State Division of Forestry at Valley Center, said he was driving 100 yards ahead of the plane when it crashed. He identified it as a Navy Corsair with one occupant. He said he was driving north on the Rincon Road and saw the plane above him. When he got to a turn in the road he felt the crash and stopped. The plane was in flames, 100 yards behind him.
The pilot, Beau Roger Wilson LTJG (Lieutenant, Junior Grade) was killed instantly, his head, still in its helmet, and one arm was found in the roadway several hundred feet from the impact area. His class ring from Texas A&M was recovered from the hand and arm found in the road. The ring was given to his young widow, Lavina ‘Dusty’ Wilson.
Three months later Pearl Holdredge, walking out to get her mail, saw something shiny in the drainage ditch on the side of her driveway and when she picked it up was amazed to be holding Beau Wilson's St. Christopher medal. It was several hundred feet from the point of impact also and had a cut about a quarter of the way through it. Pearl proceeded to call Miramar Naval Air Station and told them what she had found, but they never called her back or contacted her in any way about the medal. After not hearing back from the Navy, Pearl put the medal in a small desk drawer and there it lay for the next 49 years.
Pearl and Harley moved to a different ranch in Valley Center in late 1952, Harley passed away in 1966, and Pearl moved to Escondido with the desk and the medal still in the drawer.
In 1981, Pearl moved to San Jose to live with her only child, a daughter, Carol, and her husband, Roger. Pearl passed away in 1993 and Carol and Roger moved to Atascadero in 1997.
The medal and other personal belongings of Pearl's remained in the desk until 2001 when Carol finally started to go through some of her mother's personal belongings. It was then that she came across the medal and wrote Dennis Galt of Escondido an E-mail telling him about it. Galt had a particular interest in this story as he was one of the children in the fourth grade that had watched this Navy pilot do his aerobatics and then watched, horrified, as the plane made a power dive into the ground.
He suggested that if she was interested he would be willing to help her and see if he could locate any surviving family of Beau Wilson. Carol promptly wrapped it up and mailed it to Galt and said to run with it.
“When the medal arrived it was a bit strange to be holding a medal that you realized had been around the neck of a young Navy pilot, one whose death I had personally watched all those years before. Especially to see the damage the medal incurred during the crash and decapitation of its owner.
I was able to ascertain that the young 11 month old son that was left behind was Beau R. Wilson, Jr., and that he had passed away in Idaho in 1994 at the age of 43. He had two sons, a Tyler and a Jason. For the next two years I had a private investigator trying to find me a lead on the two boys, the pilot's grandsons. I couldn't find any leads on the widow and figuring she may have remarried it was going to be next to impossible to find her, and the fact that she would be in her 70s today I wasn't sure she would even still be alive.
In 2003 a personal friend in the Coast Guard told me after hearing about my search that I should write the Dept. of Navy under the Freedom of Information Act and see what they could do to help me. I E-mailed them on June 15th, and again on the 27th of June, stating that this was my second attempt to get a reply. Nothing. In early August I went into the office of Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham and related my story to McKing Alanis. Mr. Alanis asked me if I still had the letters that I had written twice to the Navy and would I be willing to bring a copy down and sign it. I went home and retrieved it from my computer and took it back to the congressman's office where Mr. Alanis told me they would forward it to their congressional liaison to the Navy in Washington, D.C. and have it hand delivered to the Navy Department. That was done on August 6, 2003. Mr. Alanis said not to get my hopes too high and not to be in a hurry as these things could take a long time.
I came home from work one evening, I believe the 11th of September, and was watching the evening news when the phone rang and my daughter, Natali, said that I had a call from a Mrs. Ward on the phone. I took the call and said hello and this woman asked me if I was Dennis Galt. I said yes I was and she said she was Lavina Ward, formerly Lavina Wilson. I just about dropped the phone for I knew that the widow of Beau was on the other end of the line.
She told me that she had returned to Texas to be near family as she was young, widowed and the mother of an infant son. She told me how she went back to school, finishing her education and getting her Ph.D. She remarried, later divorced and was living in Sacramento, California, working full time for California State University System. She had come home from work herself that day and saw this letter from the Navy and when she read my letter inside that they had forwarded to her she was literally blown away. The St. Christopher medal had been given to her husband by his mother, her mother in law, and she said he cherished it. She went on to say that she thought of the medal often but figured that it had been destroyed in the fiery crash of Beau's plane.”
Thanks to the dogged determination of Dennis Galt, the story behind the pilot began to crystallize a bit.
First off, he learned that the several witnesses who said the pilot was ‘stunting,’ used a poor choice of words, at best, in that it initially reflected negatively on the pilot. Besides, he had seen the pilot flying and it looked to him like a pilot who was simply practicing aerobatics.
“That prompted me to check into what was the protocol of the day for Navy flights over San Diego County. I have a Three Star Admiral (Retired) who comes into my store and when he heard the story he said, ‘Dennis, this pilot died about the exact same time I was learning to be familiar with the same plane, a Corsair. He was doing what we call familiarization flights, learning the plane and all it's quirks. Loops, rolls and other maneuvers were the order of the day.’
So then I petitioned the Navy under the Freedom Of Information Act for a copy of the official accident report. It came to me about 3 weeks later and in it the official declaration was that Beau Wilson was doing exactly what was required of him; learning to fly a new plane.”
The Department of the Navy had conducted a full blown investigation and determined “that LtJG Beau Roger Wilson died in (the) line of duty., Further, the investigate report went on . . . “It is the opinion of the investigating officer that the subject accident and resulting death was not due to intent, fault, negligence or inefficiency of any person of the Naval Service. Further, it is the opinion of the investigating officer that the major cause of the accident was LTJG Wilson’s lack of knowledge of the flight characteristics of the F4U type aircraft.”
The report goes on . . .
“LTJG Wilson was on a duly authorized and scheduled flight performing aerobatics in an assigned area at an authorized altitude in line of duty; therefore, misconduct was not involved.
It is recommended that no further action be taken.
/s/ R. Branum
Some background on Beau Roger Wilson and his beloved Dusty:
He met Lavina in Dallas. He didn’t like the name Lavina so they adopted a nickname her girlfriends in college had given her, “Dusty,” which is what she is known by today. Her hometown was Dallas where they met on a blind date on July 17, 1948.
They were married in Dallas on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1948. He had been a senior at Texas A&M when they met, graduating in June of 1949 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Engineering.
In order to enter the Navy Flight program he had to resign his Army commission which he received upon graduation from Texas A&M, a military school. He then earned his wings at Pensacola Naval Air Station in June of 1951.
He reported for duty at North Island Naval Air Station, Fighter Squadron 871. He reported on Monday, November 26, 1951, and died just two days later. Dusty was a 22 year old bride at the time, with a 10 month old son, Beau Roger Wilson, Jr. Young Beau would grow up, marry, and have children but, he too, would die a tragic death at age 43.
His widow, Kathy, lives in Colorado. They had two sons, one, Tyler Wilson is graduating soon with a BS in chemistry and then moves on to the University of Illinois for his doctorate. The other son, Jason, finishes his degree next January in Electrical Engineering at Boise State University, Boise, Idaho.
Today, Dusty Ward, the former Lavina Wilson, lives in the Sacramento area where she manages two federal programs. She remarried, divorced, but only after having a daugher, Winnifred, who is practicing real estate law in the Sacramento area.
Dusty Wilson Ward Today
The St. Christopher medal that started this long, long journey and precipitated this search, had been in the possession of Dennis Galt . . . he who was a fourth grade student watching the Corsair on the day it slammed into the earth . . . and he, the inquisitive witness who was determined to restore the medal and any other memorabilia to Wilson’s family, should they want it.
Well, thanks to Dennis Galt, Dusty now has the long missing St. Christopher’s medal.
The newlyweds: Dusty, Beau and Beau Jr.
Lt. JG (junior grade) Beau Roger Wilson, receiving his wings from wife, Dusty
Lt. JG (junior grade) Beau Roger Wilson ready to fly.
From Dennis Galt:
“Lyle, we (my wife, Natali & I) picked up Lavina Ward Saturday (August 4th) at the Hyatt downtown after she had flown in from Sacramento. We had brought a big bouquet of dahlias from our garden and we took them to Beau's headstone at Fort Rosecrans Cemetery. We then drove her to Valley Center and showed her the elementary school where I and my classmates witnessed the accident. Then we drove her to the crash site and showed her where the medal was found.
We drove back to San Diego and had a very nice early dinner with her at the Hotel Del. She was so grateful to get the medal and hear the story about all of it first hand. I gave her the Navy copy of the accident report which I had also got, through the Freedom of Information Act. I also had photo copies of the newspaper articles from Escondido and San Diego, which she had refused to read when the accident took his life that November day in 1951. She mentioned that his mother had given that medal to him and he would never take it off his neck as he cherished it so much.”
Today, Dennis Galt, though raised in Valley Center, lives in Escondido. He is employed at Grangetto’s where he has served North County for 30 years.