Charles Willis Jr., airline president


Charles Fountain Willis Jr., a highly decorated World War II aviator and successful airline executive who grew up in Baltimore, died of cancer Tuesday at the Washington Hospital Center. He was 74.

Born in Beaumont, Texas, Mr. Willis was reared here and attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute for a period before his family moved to Mobile, Ala., where he completed high school.

Mr. Willis received his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida in 1940 and later enlisted in the Navy, graduating from flight school in Jacksonville. He was stationed at Kaneohe Field at Pearl Harbor, where on Dec. 7, 1941, he was wounded by the Japanese surprise attack.

Over the next two years, Mr. Willis flew 250 missions in the Pacific, flying escort, patrols, torpedo and bombing runs. In news accounts of his exploits, he was called the "Fabulous Character" -- the name that he gave his aircraft, which he meant to honor his grandmother.

He shot down a four-engine Japanese bomber, spent three days in a raft without food or water after his own plane was shot down, and rescued the crew of a B-17 shot down 400 miles behind enemy lines. He also devised ways to use the slow Catalina patrol plane as a dive bomber, torpedo plane and fighter, and flew into the eye of a typhoon to help track its course for Navy officers planning the invasion of Okinawa.

After returning home, Mr. Willis volunteered for another tour of duty in Europe and flew Navy planes attacking German submarines and surface ships off Great Britain. He was credited with sinking a German submarine with an experimental torpedo. Hit with anti-aircraft fire during one mission, he landed his crippled craft on one wheel in a potato field in Scotland.

Among his decorations were three Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Air Medals.

After the war, Mr. Willis launched several aviation-related businesses and, with a friend, organized Citizens for Eisenhower in 1951, raising $3 million. After the election, he spent two years in the White House as President Eisenhower's special assistant in charge of presidential appointments.

Mr. Willis later worked with an advertising firm, and then became president of Alaska Airlines, at the time a struggling carrier with three obsolete aircraft and a large debt. By the time he retired, as chairman, in 1972, the airline was a multimillion-dollar carrier with routes extending into the former Soviet Union and lower 48 states.

Mr. Willis was married twice -- to the former Grace Boardman Eddy and the former Elizabeth Chambers Firestone, both of whom are deceased.

He is survived by two sisters, Margaret Willis Sparrow of Baltimore and Dorothy Willis McDonald of Leesburg, Va.; two daughters, Post Willis Scharnburger and Elizabeth Willis Leatherman of Boston; three sons, Charles F. Willis III, Robinson Reese Willis and Brigham Craig Willis, all of San Francisco; and three grandchildren.

Services will be held at Arlington National Cemetery at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Donations to the Wings Club Scholarship Fund, 52 Vanderbilt Ave, New York, N.Y. 10017, were suggested.

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