Walter Carl Beckham collection
This collection relates to Colonel Walter Carl Beckham who served with the U.S. Army Air Corps as a P-47 fighter pilot with the 353rd Fighter Group in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. He was credited 18 aerial victories. He was shot down and subsequently became a German Prisoner of War. He was the recipient of the Distingquished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star, Air Medal, and Legion of Merit. This collection contains Beckham's medals, badges, pins, photographs, veteran's items, and newspaper articles.
- circa 1941-1996
- Beckham, Walter Carl, 1916-1996 (Owner, Person)
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This collection is open to all researchers.
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Permission to publish, exhibit, or broadcast works from the Institute on World War II and the Human experience must be requested and granted in writing by the director of the Institute. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the Institute on World War II as the owner of the physical items and the copyright holder. Possession of a copy of an item does not constitute permission to publish, exhibit, or broadcast it. The Institute on World War II and the Human Experience reserves the right to refuse permission to individuals and publishers who have not complied with its policies. Permission fees must be paid before images are provided. Please contact the director of the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience for current publication and duplication rates.
Biographical / Historical
Walter Carl Beckham was born on May 12, 1916 in Paxton, Florida, the youngest of
three brothers. He was a war hero, a scientist, and a sentimental man who recited
Yeats. He possessed a clear code of honor, a marvelous sense of humour, and an
enterprising and creative spirit. As a young boy during the Depression in DePuniak
Springs, Florida, he transformed his paper route with a fleet of old bicycles that he
repaired and then provided as an incentive to other boys, who ran additional routes
under his direction.
When the United States entered World War II, he felt he would be better off in the air instead of on the ground, and so he tried to enlist. When the Army Air Corps refused him for being underweight, he resolved the problem at a second interview by slumping down, and as a "shorter" man," fulfilled the USAAC's height and weight requirements. Although he had not attended college, he passed the college graduation exam (and won his bus fare back home in a dice game.)
He went through flight training at Americus, Georgia, and graduated with the Aviation Cadet Class of 41-1. During one check ride, he was told to "spin it" even with the ground rapidly approaching, he thought it proper for the check pilot to direct him to recover. He suspected it might be a test to see if he would "chicken out." At a very low altitude the check pilot disproved this theory by grabbing the controls to recover, shouting "Are you trying to kill us?"
He was assigned to the Curtiss P-36 "Hawk," which he later referred to as the best he had ever flown. He also flew the Curtiss P-40, and eventually the new Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. After a tour in the Canal Zone and Ecuador, he was sent to Europe in 1943, in charge of the newly formed 351st Fighter Squadron under the group's command of Lt Colonel Glenn E. Duncan. When it came time to name his aircraft, a P-47 Thunderbolt, he chose "Little Demon," a character from Al Capp's "Lil" Abner" comic strip.
His squadron was part of the 353rd Fighter Group, and their responsibilities included escort and fighter sweep duties, ground support and dive-bombing. The only dive-bombing training the pilots had undergone had been stateside with the P-40, a completely different task. Having flown both airplanes, my father understood the problem and approached Colonel Duncan with some new theories. The two gentlemen devised a set of techniques that were used until the end of the war. They entered combat on August 12,1943.
On September 23,1943, Walter Beckham brought down his first enemy aircraft, a Focke-Wulf 190 near Nantes, France. Many of his subsequent victories were scored in doubles and in one case a triple. On October 10, 1943, on an escort mission to Munster, he destroyed three twin-engine German aircraft. The third hit depleted his ammunition, and when another ME-110 came towards him "...I turned sharply toward him and he broke violently, evading my P-47 with empty guns." A growing number of swastikas joined the bright yellow "Little Demon" artwork under the canopy.
He was shot down on February 22,1944 while attacking parked FW 190s on a base at Ostheim, Germany. This was during "Big Week," the all out attack against the German aircraft industry. At the time he was America's leading ace in the European Theatre with eighteen German air victories in six months of combat. He had flown 56 missions, although, with a mathematician's precision, he counted 5614. His lifetime friend Claude Jenkins remembers seeing the news of his last mission in Time Magazine, with his quote to a wingmate: "Take the boys home, George, I've been hit!" "... I was hit by something when I was still at 4-5,000 feet altitude - long before I began firing... Smoke is belching from my engine. But It still runs, I cut off the fuel - coasting - no help. Woods are northward, England is westward. I am in no trouble if my engine keeps running, and I ask my friends to proceed on home. I unfasten the seat and shoulder belts and run the canopy back. I'm hoping for the smoke to go away, while ready to bail out fast Where there's smoke there's fire? Whoever said that is damned right...I'm down well under a thousand feet. There's no question about what to do. Let's do it. I stand up in the seat and try to dive out of the left side of the cockpit I'm stuck! What the hell is holding me? Time to do a little thinking...I sit back down. I jam the stick forward with my right foot. Departing the cockpit as she plunges down I feel a bump, but it doesn't hurt. I make a Joke that I have "ejected" myself-this before ejection seats were invented!"
He spent the next 14 months in Stalag Luft III at Sagan, and at Moorsburg, where access to an elementary college physics book sparked his interest. On 29 April 1945 Patton's 14th Armored Division liberated him. After the war, he stayed in the newly formed US Air Force as a squadron commander of the first jet-equipped fighter group. He received a BS degree in physics from the University of Florida in 1949, and a MS in physics from Ohio State University in 1950. He attended graduate school at the University of Califomla, Berkeley, where he studied under Edward Teller and received his PhD in physics in 1962.
Walter Beckham was the founding chief scientist of the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, near Albuquerque, New Mexico, and continued as chief scientist for six years. During this time, he nurtured a tradition of scientific excellence and mentored many young officer-scientists trying to resolve the scientific, political, and moral concerns inherent to nuclear weapons. His principal research interests centered on nuclear weapons and their effects, and later on survivability and vulnerability issues for nuclear weapons.
He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1969, and continued as a consultant at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, working on various defense-related strategic studies. For his many services, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, and the Legion of Merit.
After retirement he lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife Lorraine and two very spoiled Shetland Sheepdogs. Throughout this time, he often received letters from Thunderbolt enthusiasts and World War II history buffs, which he always answered. His airplane was painted by the aviation artist Robert St. Vincent "High Speed, Low Pass," and reproductions were printed (the original is on display at Edwards AFB.) When Ray Stutsman approached him about painting his own Thunderbolt as "Little Demon" he declined and suggested another pilot's aircraft. Mr. Stutsman persisted and my father then suggested a second comrade's plane. Mr. Stutsman remained firm, and my father conceded. In 1985, 44 years after his bail out over enemy territory, he took a ride in the jump seat of the aircraft. The first issue of Thunderbolt Enthusiasts International was dedicated to him. He never bragged about his achievements and often seemed bemused at the attention he received. "Only do things now that you will be proud of later" was the one piece of advice he gave his admirers. Walter Carl Beckham died of a heart attack on 31 May 1996 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is survived by his wife Lorraine and daughter Melissa.
Verbatim transcript source:
Beckham, Melissa. Walter Carl Beckham Biography, 1996.Manuscript. From Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, Walter Carl Beckham Collection.(accessed July 12, 2019).
- Thunderbolt (Fighter plane) Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- United States. Army Air Forces. Bomber Command, 8th Subject Source: Local sources
- United States. Army Air Forces. Fighter Group, 353rd
- World War, 1939-1945--Campaigns--Europe Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Walter Carl Beckham collection
- Michael G. Kasper
- July 11, 2019
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