Ask Rufus: Charles Wilburn's 'Go Gettin Gal'

November 16, 2019 9:54:33 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]

 

I remember Charles Wilburn of Artesia as a top notch bird dog trainer who had been a pilot in World War II. Like so many others of the greatest generation I had no idea of all he had done or his adventures in the "Go Gettin Gal."

 

While attending Mississippi State in the mid 1930s, Charles had been in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps program. After graduating in 1936, he was commissioned a second lieutenant.

 

On June 30, 1941, he was called to active duty and promoted to first lieutenant. He then applied for and was accepted for pilot training. He received training at several bases, with his advanced training being at Columbus Army Flying School in May 1942. At Columbus he completed about 60 hours of twin engine flight training.

 

 

Wilburn was awarded his silver wings at Columbus on July 3, 1942. His first assignment was to remain at Columbus as an instructor.

 

After about a year Wilburn was sent for additional advanced training in B-17s and B-24s. In early March of 1944, he departed San Francisco for Hickham Field, Honolulu and then reported to the US South Pacific headquarters at Noumea, New Caledonia. There he was assigned to be the pilot for one of two B-24 bombers reserved for transporting Lt. General Milliard Harmon, commander of USAFISPA and other VIPs. He named his B-24 the "Go Gettin Gal" and the "Gal" was prominently featured in the plane's nose art.

 

About six months later, Gen. Harmon was called to Hickham Field to be deputy commander of the 20th Air Force. Harmon took his original pilot with him, which left Wilburn as commanding officer of the headquarters flight section.

 

Maj. Gen. F. Gilbreath replaced Gen. Harmon and the command became Sopacbacom, which handled supplies for much of the South Pacific. Wilburn's job remained flying the general, his staff and VIPs around. One of the duties for the "Gal" was flying to Australia to get fresh milk, meat and vegetables. Wilburn also flew performers around the South Pacific to USO shows. Among his passengers were Jack Benny and Carol Landis. Wilburn flew them from New Caledonia to Guadalcanal where they performed among the shot-up landing craft and blown-up Japanese tanks that littered the island.

 

Bob Hope was also to be a passenger on a USO show flight. However, Hope had flown in to New Caledonia on a C-47 that had lost one of its engines. Hope decided that he did not feel safe flying on a B-24 and opted to fly instead on a Navy PBY because in an emergency it could land on water.

 

Wilburn's last assignment in the war time Pacific was in the Philippines. It was there that Gen. Gilbreath decided he wanted a smaller, faster plane and Wilburn flew "our faithful old B-24, the 'Go Gettin Gal' or simply 'The Gal' to us, down to Clark Field and turn(ed) it in." Wilburn believed that he and his flight crew and the "Gal" had probably flown to more places in the Pacific than any other flight crew.

 

Looking at his notes I came across references to at least 25 islands or bases to which he flew. From Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima to Okinawa, the list of islands Wilburn landed at reads like a who's who of the battlefields of the Pacific Campaign.

 

As so often happens when I write my column, Charles Wilburn's story led me to another story. There are several photos of the "Gal" in Charles' photo album with another gal posing by her. This other gal was Carol Landis. Landis was an up-and-coming Hollywood actress and a favorite GI pin-up. She, probably more than any other major actress, took entertaining troops at USO shows to heart. She did shows in North Africa, England and then the Pacific. It was said she logged more than 100,000 miles visiting US troops in the field. It is clear from Charles' photos of her that she enjoyed putting on the shows and talking to and posing for photos with the troops. When Charles flew her and Jack Benny to Guadalcanal, she posed for photos with the "Go Gettin Gal."

 

What makes this story so poignant is that Landis had such a sad personal life. She had four unsuccessful marriages and affairs with Darryl F. Zanuck and Rex Harrison that ended badly. In 1948, she was suffering from depression and committed suicide with an overdose of Seconal.

 

Landis stared in the Broadway play "The Lady Says Yes" in 1945. A bit actress in the play got to know her and later wrote a novel taken from the Hollywood lives of Carol Landis, Judy Garland and Ethel Merman.

 

The actress-turned-author was Jaqueline Susann. Her novel "The Valley of the Dolls" was a bestseller that has sold 31 million copies and became a hit movie. The character Jennifer North in the story is said to have been based on Landis and Sharon Tate portrayed her in the movie. It is a haunting story that Charles' war time photos led me to.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]