One of Middletown’s most decorated World War II veterans, a man who fought on the bloody Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, died three years ago.
Today — the 75th anniversary of D-Day — it’s appropriate we look back at the life of William “Bill” Wilch.
Wilch, a rifleman in the Army’s 29th Infantry Division, received a Purple Heart Medal, Bronze Star Medal, and the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal, the highest honor that France can bestow upon a person.
Wilch died on Dec. 5, 2016 — two days before Pearl Harbor Day — after a lengthy illness at Hospice of Butler and Warren Counties. He was 92.
Members of Team Fastrax participated in the funeral as three planes flew over and dispersed red, white and blue smoke and a team of skydivers performed with American flags. Wilch and the skydivers formed a friendship over the years and he often visited them at Hook Field, according to John Hart, the owner of of Start Skydiving where the team is based.
The day after Wilch died, one of his six children, Steve Wilch, said Tom Hanks’ movie “Saving Private Ryan” finally allowed his father to open up those war wounds. Up until then, Wilch said, his father didn’t talk about the war, and certainly never bragged about his heroic actions.
Wilch and his son wrote a book that contained about 200 wartime letters. Wilch’s mother, Helen Paden Wilch, and his future wife, Mary Rita Routson Wilch, had kept the correspondences and photos in the envelopes he mailed back home to Middletown.
“It’s how I learned about why he was having those nightmares,” Steve Wilch said.
The book also chronicled fellow soldier Burton Burfeind, a member of the 29th Infantry Division, 115 Regiment, who was credited with saving Wilch’s life more than once and keeping him from being a POW.
Burfeind was killed on Sept. 9, 1944 in France.
It was Burfeind’s advice to Wilch, all of 5-foot-8, that became the title of Wilch’s memoirs: “Don’t Just Kill Them, Murder ‘Em. Shoot Pee Wee, Just Shoot.”
At the 2013 Kentucky Derby, owner Rick Porter had a colt named Normandy Invasion running. Porter invited four soldiers who fought during the invasion to the Derby to meet the horse and watch the race. Normandy Invasion finished fourth in the Derby, behind Orb, Golden Soul and Revolutionary.
During his visit to Churchill Downs, since his wife, Mary Rita, never watched a Derby in person, he placed a picture of her in his shirt pocket. He became known as The Guy With The Picture. He was popular with the wives who wanted to know why their husbands didn’t carry their pictures around.
When the Derby was over, Wilch said, the wife of the owner told him she was so impressed by his love of his wife that if they ever had a filly, her name would be Mary Rita. Months later, a filly was born. He name is Mary Rita.
Wilch also got connected with members of Team Fastrax. One summer day in 2015, they remodeled his bathroom, removed more than 20 shrubs, painted the exterior of the home, repaired the gutters and built a wheelchair ramp. The whole time he sat on the porch shaking his head.
“Why me?” he asked. “Why me? I’m nothing special.”
If anything, he was special.
“He was part of the team, the soul of the team,” Hart said. “He’s just an awesome guy. We fell in love with him. He just has one of those personalities.”
Thank you for reading the Journal-News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Journal-News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.