MAPS Veteran and World War II pilot Bob Withee passed away on July 20 at the age of 97 due to various health conditions.
A lifetime MAPS member, the P-51 Mustang at the entrance to the museum was painted in the markings of Withee's plane, "Jean Ann II" in honor of his wife. Withee was credited with four Japanese Zero fighters that he shot down while flying in the South Pacific in World War II.
Withee joined the Army Air Corps in January, 1943, in Cleveland. He trained in Biloloxi, Miss.; and San Antonio, Bonham, Greenville and Victoria, Texas, where he received his flight wings as a fighter pilot. From Texas he went to Colorado Springs for advanced training on the P-40 Warhawk before going to Baton Rouge to prepare for overseas deployment. From there, he flew across the Pacific via Pearl Harbor to New Guinea.
In New Guinea, there were no aircraft to fly so he flew with an Australian P-40 unit against the Japanese Fortress of Rabual. While with the Australians, he had a chance to fly the legendary British Spitfire, providing top cover for the lower level P-40s.
From New Guinea, he was sent to Biak Island where he flew with the 110the Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron equipped with the P-40. He moved to Tacloban Airfield in the Philippines to fly close support missions. Over Clark Field, he was able to shoot down two Japanese Zeros, repeating the effort later over the Northern Philippines. In the spring of 1945, Withee converted to the P-51 Mustang. While on a mission, his wingman crashed into him and Withee bailed, spending two days in a life raft. His wingman did not survive.
After the war, he returned on a transport to San Francisco and disembarked on Christmas Day in 1945. He was discharged in January 1946. He took a job with Olgeby Norton, a steel mil and iron ore business until his retirement in 1977.
"I had over 200 combat missions and over 400 combat hours," Withee recalled. "I went over with 20 guys in our group and only seven came home."
Withee and his wife had two children, four grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Withee's wife passed away unexpectedly.
One day, he stopped in at the MAPS Air Museum and fell in love with the place and took out a lifetime membership. He became one of the most beloved members there, working as a tour guide until his health restricted him from doing that. But even from his wheel chair, he would talk to visitors and regale them with stories from World War II. At the annual pancake breakfasts and summer air show, Withee was always surrounded by will wishers who wanted to chat with him.
In Withee's honor, there will be a special memorial service at MAPS at 5 p.m. Saturday at the MAPS hangar.