Missouri Air Guardsman, WWII combat aviator remembered

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Mary-Dale Amison
  • 131st Bomb Wing Public Affairs

Growing up in a suburb of St. Louis in the 1920s, Harding Zumwalt had two great passions: flying airplanes and playing the trumpet.

At age 12, Zumwalt was performing regularly for a local radio station and by high school he had joined a swing band, putting his gig money toward flying lessons. It would prove to be one talent fostering another, with Zumwalt later joining the Royal Air Force, then the U.S. Army Air Corps, and finally the Missouri Air National Guard. Zumwalt flew more than 40 different aircraft and 71 combat missions. After more than three decades of military service, he retired as a brigadier general and a wing commander, decorated with a Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, among numerous other awards.

Brig. Gen. Harding R. Zumwalt died in January at the age of 97. Family, friends and his Missouri Air National Guard family met at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery on Monday to celebrate the life of this combat aviator, Guardsmen, wing commander and musician.

A missing-man formation of T-38 jets from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, flew overhead in commemoration of Zumwalt’s illustrious career.

Zumwalt’s life in the military began as a child. His father, Fredrick Zumwalt Sr. was a World War I veteran and former Missouri National Guardsman. Fredrick encouraged his son’s early interest in aviation and also his love of music, buying him a trumpet, which Zumwalt would keep with him through his military service.

Reflecting back on that time, Zumwalt said in 1992, “If it weren’t for my horn, I wouldn’t have ended up in the military the way I did. … I carried that horn all the way through (World War II).”

At first, a musical career was Zumwalt’s goal, but in 2011, he said, “When the war broke out, flying became my first choice.”

Already a pilot, he tried to join the U.S. Army Air Corps, but failed the eye test. Undaunted, he heard the Royal Air Force was barely holding back German forces in Europe, so Zumwalt visited a local recruiting office. He was initially refused because of an eye exam, but after a recheck, he was enlisted and attended basic flight school in Tulsa.

From there, Zumwalt went to England and flew with a multi-national group of pilots united in the war against Germany.  He learned to fly Spitfires, Hurricanes and other British aircraft. In 1942, he tried to join the U.S. Navy as a pilot, but again failed the eye test.

Zumwalt finally found his way into American forces with the U.S. Army Air Corps and was assigned to the 8th Air Force, 83rd Squadron, 78th Fighter group at Goxhill, England, in early 1943. His eye problems continued to follow him and he was grounded, but it was through his other passion that he was able to take to the skies again.

The squadron flight surgeon—an ophthalmologist—was starting the Thunderbolt Dance Band and asked Zumwalt to join. In exchange for playing the trumpet, Zumwalt asked the flight surgeon to help appeal his grounding. A short time later, Zumwalt’s flight status was restored. 

Zumwalt flew 71 combat missions, including the first attack on Berlin. After completing his combat tour, he briefly stayed in England as a flight instructor before returning to the United States as a first lieutenant in 1944. At the end of WWII, he was release from active duty and joined the Missouri National Guard’s 110th Fighter Squadron in 1946. He married his hometown sweetheart, Nancy McConnell, and continued flying and playing the trumpet. 

In 1951, he was ordered back to active duty with the Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Composite Wing during the Korean War. By 1953, Zumwalt was serving full time in St. Louis as an Air National Guard technician.

For the next 20 years, he served in the maintenance field, which included another active duty recall to France for the Berlin Crisis in 1961.

In December, 1972, Zumwalt assumed command of the 131st Tactical Fighter Wing and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

During his military career, Zumwalt piloted the P-47, P-51, F-100, F-84, Curtiss Helldriver, C-54, C-47, C-45, B-25, B-26, as well as the British Spitfire and Hurricane, among others.

He retired from the military in 1976 and moved to the Lake of the Ozarks, where he enjoyed family life and served as a deacon and elder in the Presbyterian Church.

Zumwalt is survived by a son, Jeffrey, his daughter-in-law Diane, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He is preceded in death by his wife of 61 years, Nancy.