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by CW3 Charles D. Petrie, United States Army



In 1990, a lifelong interest in the Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter took an unexpected turn when I discovered a little-known group of American pilots had captured and flown this highly secret German plane at the close of WWII.  Over the course of the succeeding decade, I began to unearth the details of the operation by scouring the archives, contacting other researchers, gathering documentation, and interviewing each survivor.  Today, we know them as Watson's Whizzers, and their story is told elsewhere on the Stormbirds site.

Captain Hillis in the cockpit of Cookie VI
Captain Hillis in the cockpit of Cookie VI


There was, however, a problem:.  Of the original eight pilots assigned to the mission, three had passed away before I could begin my research; among them, the operations officer, Captain Fred L. Hillis.  Little was known about Captain Hillis at the time, and most of his fellow pilots recalled only that he was "older and more experienced" than the rest.  Was there to be no way to recount the details of Hillis' own story?  For a time, it seemed that there was not.

After the launch of the Stormbirds web site, things began to change.  The site quickly drew the attention of Whizzers' family members scattered throughout the United States, and several contacted me via e-mail.

Within the space of 18 months, I had heard from Ken Holt's son-in-law, Bill Haynes' nephew, and no less than two members of the Hillis clan:  his first daughter, and his eldest grandson.  Through the correspondence that followed, I began to learn more about the man, his wartime exploits, his postwar career, and his enduring legacy.  I came away impressed.  His is a story worth telling.

Like so many of his generation, Fred Hillis emerged from the poverty of the Depression years, went off to war, and came home to raise his family and make his mark in the business world.  He excelled at every turn, and I am pleased to present this all-too-brief look at an extraordinary man that I never knew:  the late Fred Leroy Hillis.

This site is dedicated to Mary Abney Hillis, with grateful acknowledgement to Cynthia Hillis McBride and the entire Hillis family. Without your kindness, generosity and patience, none of this would have been possible.  Thank you for sharing your story!

The Hillis Family in 1999


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