Charles Johnson was just a boy when his cousin died flying a P-51 fighter plane over the Philippines during World War II, but those events changed the course of Johnson’s life.
“He was actually my inspiration,” Johnson said.
His cousin, William Thomas “Billy” Tudor, graduated from Henry Clay High School in 1940.
Billy played trumpet and was “a very intelligent person” who had a lifelong love of airplanes and dreamed of attending West Point, his younger brother, Kenneth Tudor, said..
Instead, Billy attended flight school in Georgia and became a second lieutenant.
He flew P-40s in Asia, then completed 50 combat missions over Africa before being sent to the Pacific.
On Jan. 8, 1945, Billy Tudor, 23, took his last flight, a bombing and strafing mission over Mindanao.
A letter from Brigadier General H. B. Lewis to Tudor’s parents the following year described how Tudor had bombed several targets successfully when he “suddenly called in that he had spotted an enemy barge hidden away near the shore. The planes immediately began the attack and encountered enemy fire from the nearby town of Surigao.
“While making his last pass over the target, Lieutenant Tudor was evidently hit by this fire, as his ship suddenly pulled into the sky and collided with that of his flight leader who had just finished his attack. Both planes were destroyed on impact and the pilots killed.”
The letter says the plane dropped into the bay and the body was not recovered “at that time.”
But a 1948 letter from Rudyard Hansen, who described himself as “an American member and an active member of the Mindanao guerillas during the Japanese occupation” in Surigao, describes a different outcome.
Hansen wrote to the Tudors to give them what information he could about Billy Tudor’s last day and to assure them that he died without suffering.
He said the two fighters collided about 200 feet above the ground, in the midst of drizzle and fog, and that Tudor’s plane crashed into a sawmill near the town’s pier.
He said a man pulled Tudor’s body from the plane, but then Japanese soldiers waved Filipino civilians away and “were able to loot such things as his ring, his bracelet, and his watch.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Several months after Tudor’s death, something caught the eye of an American military policeman who was guarding Japanese prisoners: an American class ring worn by one of them.
The prisoner surrendered the ring, and a letter from the MP made its way to the principal of Henry Clay High School in Lexington.
Could the principal help him find a member of the 1940 class with the initials W.T.T.?
Tudor’s ring had found its way home.
Kenneth Tudor, now 90, said his parents were “thrilled to have it” returned to them. It is now among his treasured possessions.
Both he and Johnson, 84, said their lives were heavily influenced by Billy Tudor’s service.
Johnson, who grew up in Madison County, he said he joined the Air Force in 1951 and became a pilot, serving until 1972. He said his last six years were spent as an instructor.
After retiring from his military career, he eventually moved back to Central Kentucky, where he flew corporate aircraft for the Cliff Hagan’s Ribeye chain. He retired from that position in 1985 and spent seven years running the restaurant at Lone Oak Country Club. He lives in Wilmore.
Kenneth Tudor enlisted in the Air Force in 1943, when he was 17 years old.
“Bill was always interested in aviation big time,” he recalled. And, being an admiring younger brother, anything his brother was interested in automatically was of interest to him, too.
“I was always following him,” he said.
After the war, Kenneth Tudor earned a degree in mining engineering from the University of Kentucky and had “a very interesting career that actually took me around the world.”
He now lives in Newport News, Va.
Seventy-one years after his big brother’s death, his voice still shakes as he tells of how Billy Tudor made and flew model airplanes as a child.
“He was a great, great guy,” he said. “I just admired the things he did.”