By Candice Tewell
Amazing memories are made every day at The Museum of Flight. Visitors from around the world enjoy new and exciting experiences throughout our galleries. Many also come here to revisit experiences collected over a lifetime of flight.
Grandparents share stories of their World War I-era fighter pilot heroes and their own experiences flying during World War II. Pilots explain to amazed friends and family how they fly a plane just like the one on display. While exploring our galleries, people often come across something familiar, whether it is a particular plane, the description of a battle or the story of a pilot with whom they were acquainted. Occasionally, they run into the pilot himself.
Just such an encounter occurred on a cloudy weekend in January. Cmdr. Roy “Butch” Voris, USN (ret.), the pilot chosen to organize and train the first official Navy flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, was in town to discuss his experiences as a naval aviator. He was joined by author Robert Wilcox, whose book “First Blue: The Story of World War II Ace Butch Voris and the Creation of the Blue Angels,” was recently published by Thomas Dunne Books. Voris and Wilcox were enjoying lunch in the Wings Café when Voris was surprised by a familiar face from his past.
Former naval reserve lieutenant (j.g.) and fighter ace John “Mike” Wolf, who recently moved to the Seattle area, saw an ad for the “First Blue” program in the newspaper and came down to the museum to reunite with the man he had flown with 60 years before. Although he had been interviewed by Wilcox for “First Blue,” Wolf had not seen Voris for 60 years. Upon reading that Voris would be in Seattle, Wolf decided it was time to catch up with an old friend.
Voris and Wolf flew together in Fighting Squadron 2 (VF-2), famous for having the most aces of any squadron in American history. Twenty-seven pilots from this incredible group of aviators became aces. Pilots of VF-2 divided themselves into flights of four planes, in which they patrolled the South Pacific. A flight was made up of a flight leader, his wingman, a section leader and his wingman. Wolf and Voris flew together regularly, Voris as flight leader and Wolf as section leader, and they grew close over the seven months they spent flying off the “USS Hornet.”
The reunion was a surprise for Voris but a very welcome one. Both men fell back into a comfortable friendship, although Voris said that Wolf was “no longer the skinny, young, tow-headed kid” he remembered. Wolf recalls last seeing Voris stepping off a cable car in San Francisco after their tour had ended. Although he has not kept in touch with many war-time friends, Wolf says he still feels close to Voris and the other men with whom he served during World War II. He quotes Voris as saying, “Bonding depends on the amount of risk” you experience with someone. As Voris pointed out, “(Wolf) saved my life more than once, and I saved his.” It’s hard to be closer to someone than to put your life in their hands and ask them to put their life in yours.
After the two men spent time catching up, it was time for the “First Blue” program. Rather than allowing Wolf to be merely a spectator, museum public programs coordinator Harold Rubin pulled an extra chair on stage, and the capacity crowd in the museum’s William M. Allen Theater was treated to the story of the first Blue Angel by one of the men who knew his flying best.
Both men were excited about the reunion. Voris doesn’t hesitate to call it the highlight of his trip to Seattle.
“After sixty years, there are fewer and fewer of us around,” he adds.
Wolf admits that he was never much of a joiner and, because he didn’t stay in the Navy after his tour of duty, he lost touch with most of his friends from VF-2. Thanks to this reunion at the museum, however, Wolf has joined the American Fighter Aces Association (of which Voris was already a member), which will allow him to stay better connected with his compatriots of six decades ago. As the museum is the national headquarters of the AFAA, you can be sure that we’ll try to persuade Mike Wolf to come back soon to share his own fascinating stories with our visitors.
It may have started as just another day at The Museum of Flight, but for two fighter aces, that rainy Saturday in January turned out to be one neither they nor the museum audience will ever forget.