Herman G. "Hank" Tillman Jr., Air Force colonel

Herman G. "Hank" Tillman Jr., a retired Air Force colonel and pilot who flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and was one of Maryland's most decorated veterans, died of liver failure at his Chester home. He was 89.
Herman G. "Hank" Tillman Jr., a retired Air Force colonel and pilot who flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and was one of Maryland's most decorated veterans, died of liver failure at his Chester home. He was 89. (Baltimore Sun)

Herman G. "Hank" Tillman Jr., a retired Air Force colonel and pilot who flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and was one of Maryland's most decorated veterans, died Sunday of liver failure at his Chester home. He was 89.

He was born in his immigrant grandparents' Anne Arundel County farmhouse, and later moved with his family to a home at Pontiac Avenue and Sixth Street in Brooklyn.

After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1940, he attended the Johns Hopkins University at night and worked at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s engineering department during the day.

"As a kid, he was fascinated with flying. He was working for Baltimore Gas and Electric when the war broke out, and he wanted to learn to fly so he could be in it," said a daughter, Paula Gately Tillman-Hoffberger of Baltimore.

Six weeks after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army Air Forces and was sent to Maxwell Field in Alabama, where he received flight instruction in an open-cockpit Stearman PT017 radial-engine biplane.

"I wore the old goggles and canvas helmet," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1995 interview. "I had never been in an airplane before I took my first flight with an instructor."

Colonel Tillman received his wings in December 1942 in what has been called "the Pearl Harbor Anniversary Class."

He was 20 when he began flying B-17 Flying Fortresses. He named one of them "Sweet Adeline" after his German grandmother.

He was promoted to captain when he was 21. As a member of the 8th Air Force in England, he had flown 52 combat missions over Europe by the time he celebrated his 22nd birthday. He was promoted to major 41 days after celebrating his 23rd birthday.

In July 1943, he was Gen. Jimmy Doolittle's wingman on the famous daylight raid on Rome, the first on the Italian capital, when 500 medium and heavy bombers attacked the city and surrounding railroad yards.

Colonel Tillman earned his first Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart after the Sept. 8, 1943, bombing of German high-command headquarters in Frascati, Italy.

On the way back to its base in North Africa, Colonel Tillman's squadron encountered 50 German fighter planes, and his plane downed one of the enemy aircraft.

"My plane was shot up pretty bad, one engine out," he said in the 1995 interview. "I was in deep trouble. Then I got a direct burst on the cockpit, and that's how I got my leg all messed up. Two big pieces of shrapnel: One stayed in my leg, one went completely through it."

Still, Colonel Tillman remained at the controls of his plane, safely landing it at his base in Tunisia, where he was treated for his wounds.

"Nine days after I was wounded, I was back flying a mission," he said.

According to a 1943 Sun article, he wrote in a letter to his parents that the "whole cockpit seemed to come up and hit me in the face."

He flew 10 more missions before returning to Baltimore in 1944. He was then sent to Texas as a flight instructor.

When World War II ended, Colonel Tillman decided to remain in the Air Force. During the Korean War, he ferried planes to South Korea.

Trained as a jet pilot, he was sent to Vietnam and assigned to the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Tan Son Nhut airfield, where he was vice commander.

The Phantoms that he flew there were unarmed. They were loaded with photographic, thermographic and electronic sensing equipment, and were a valued asset in locating enemy surface-to-air missiles. Intelligence gathered by the 460th was also used by South Vietnamese field commanders.

Colonel Tillman flew as low as 500 feet while traveling 500 mph — both day and night, and in all kinds of weather — tracing and recording the topography of Vietnam, through valleys and up hills.

"Because he flew at night, he was called 'Night Owl,'" his daughter said.

"It is the toughest and most challenging type of flying there is in the business today," he told The Evening Sun in a 1968 interview. "I'll tell you, it takes a lot of guts to trust your instruments and hurl yourself at the earth at 500 miles an hour."

After serving in Vietnam for 13 months, where he flew 105 combat missions and served through the 1968 Tet offensive, he returned to Baltimore.

He then was assigned to command the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in Heyford, England. At the time of his 1972 retirement, he was chief of staff of the 9th Air Force in Sumter, S.C.

During his 31-year Air Force career, Colonel Tillman's decorations included a Silver Star, two other Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart, 16 Air Medals, two Legions of Merit, a Presidential Unit Citation, Vietnamese Honor Medal, 1st Class, two Meritorious Service Medals, a Commendation Medal, and the Hellenic Commemorative Medal, as well as various campaign ribbons.

After leaving the service, he co-founded Tillman Tool Co. in the 1980s with his brother, who later died.

Colonel Tillman was frequently asked to speak to veterans organizations and once addressed the White House staff. He and his wife were twice invited by Queen Elizabeth II to attend events at Buckingham Palace, and he addressed Parliament.

He had been a member of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's committee for nominations to the nation's service academies.

The one-time Linthicum Heights residents had lived for years on Kent Island, where he was a member of VFW Post 7464 and American Legion Post 278. He was also a Mason and a member of Warren Lodge and St. John's Lutheran Church.

He enjoyed going to schools to talk to students about his wartime experiences.

In a 2001 visit to Polytechnic Institute, Colonel Tillman said, "No, I didn't appreciate having to kill people," reported The Sun. "I live with it every day."

His high school sweetheart and wife of 54 years, the former Elizabeth Anne Brown, who was a member of the Coast Guard Women's Reserve during World War II, died in 1998.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Fellows, Helfenbein & Newnam, 106 Shamrock Road, Chester.

In addition to his daughter, Colonel Tillman is survived by his son, Bruce D. Tillman of Bel Air; another daughter, Terri L. Tillman of Chester; five grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.