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Thunderbolt pilot's children recall 'he had the 'it' factor'

Pilot Fillmore Gilmer. A Valley Stream underwater diver

Pilot Fillmore Gilmer. A Valley Stream underwater diver has made an accidental discovery of historic significance: He found the wreck of the sole Thunderbolt prototype, one of WWII's fiercest warplanes, in the Long Island Sound. The Aug. 5, 1942, accident report for the XP-47B, declassified under a 2009 executive order, says it crashed off Eatons Neck. One aviation expect calls the wreck "a very relevant piece of Long Island history." Credit: courtesy of National Archives

Test pilot and Navy aviator Fillmore Litton Gilmer was not one to brag so his children learned of his exploits from relatives and artifacts, including an oil painting of a Thunderbolt presented to him by a Royal Air Force pilot. 

His son and daughter recalled him as a man with many strengths and passions who loved working with his hands and taking things apart to see how they worked — including their home’s forced air heating system, the first of its kind in Big Stone Gap, a small southwestern Virginia town.

 A skilled woodworker, Gilmer repurposed military shells and crafted the cover of a photo album from a plane’s aluminum shell, said his son, Fillmore Litton Gilmer Jr., 72, of Birmingham, Alabama.

“He was an extremely smart and talented man,” who had charm and charisma to boot, his son said, speaking on a conference call Friday with his sister. “He had the 'it' factor.” 

As for the day their father's prototype Thunderbolt went down in the Long Island Sound in August 1942, he kept at least one artifact from that day, said his daughter, Barbara Lucille Phelps, 78, of Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Her dad was 31 years old at the time, and lived in Huntington.

"I remember that Daddy … had the parachute," Phelps said.

The pilot's son said he has studied his father’s warplane, and he was astounded when he came upon a Thunderbolt while visiting the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. 

“I was just in heaven," his son said.

Gilmer’s military records from the National Archives were sparse — and have a gap. A lieutenant junior grade, he served in the U.S. Naval Reserves from Aug. 15 to Sept. 11, 1936, and then from Nov. 29, 1936, to Jan. 30, 1942.

No dates or locations for the three ships he served on — the USS Nevada, the USS Enterprise, and the Yorktown, which all fought battles in the Pacific — or any honors, awards, or crashes, are revealed.   

His children carefully noted they cannot vouch for all the heroics and family lore.

Phelps recalls hearing her father survived a tropical island crash because of the unusual verb he used: “All he had to eat later was coconuts or pineapple, or something like that, and he said he ‘foundered’ on them.”

She also remembers a Royal Air Force pilot gave her father an oil painting of a Thunderbolt diving through lightning. 

Ultimately, Gilmer’s battles with alcohol would lead him to separate from their mother, ,  who moved with her children to Birmingham.

Little is known about his death at 44 on Aug. 7, 1955, in Big Stone Gap. A man who objected to Gilmer calling on his daughter shot and killed the pilot, according to local newspaper articles.

As for the family stories, such as his having competed with Chuck Yeager to set speed records:  “How much can I say is the absolute fact?” Phelps asked rhetorically. “I just know things like that are a possibility.”

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