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WWII pilot gets military honors 70 years later

That day, Jan. 18, 1945, is a moment in time that Pahrump resident Jill Walker-Guitard will never forget.

Even though she was just 18 months old, she said that day is still as fresh on her mind as yesterday.

It was on that day when she learned that her father, Lt. Bert Walker, a World War II Navy instructor pilot, was killed while participating in a training mission on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific.

She said her mother’s words haunt her even to this day.

“There was a knock on the door and my mother got a Western Union telegram. I remember when she kneeled in front of me and told me that my father would not be coming home and he died while serving his country. She received it on January the 18th, 1945. My father died on the 16th,” she said.

Due to the United States effort during the war and the typical military bureaucracy, Walker-Guitard said her father never officially received a formal military memorial service.

The 70-year-old woman struggled for years to get the records of her father’s death.

This past month, with the help of U.S. Senator Dean Heller and Congressman Steven Horsford, she secured the records to finally have a memorial service for her father.

Local officials spoke of and observed Walker’s ultimate sacrifice during a ceremony at the veterans’ section of Chief Tecopa Cemetery on Tuesday.

Representatives from both lawmaker’s offices were on hand for the ceremony.

Retired Marine 1st Sgt. Jose Tellas said he learned about the circumstances of the Navy pilot’s death and felt compelled to help give his fallen brother a proper memorial service.

“We had a ceremony where a flag was presented to Jill. I escorted her to the fallen soldier statue at the cemetery where she placed Lt. Walker’s identification tags on it. He was honored with a rifle salute and the playing of taps. We finished the ceremony with a closing prayer,” he said.

Tellas said the ceremony would not have been possible without the assistance of the town, Heller, Horsford and U.S. Navy officials.

“We had Lt. Walker’s casualty report which told us everything about the accident and it also included his serial number. We sent it to the United States Navy in San Diego. I spoke to an official who oversees services for veterans. Once he got all of the information, it all got straightened out. Heller and Horsford were very instrumental in getting this done,” he said.

Pahrump Town Board member Dr. Tom Waters said a private conversation with Walker-Guitard after a church service is what led to Tuesday’s memorial service.

Both have been very close friends for several years.

Walker-Guitard said she considers Waters like a brother.

“Jill’s mother never received anything other than a telegram delivered to their home by Navy officers to let the family know that Bert was never coming home and that was it. Over the years, Jill has been trying to get information from the Navy but was never really able to get all of the information that she requested and that was very unfortunate.

“Jill, like most other civilians, just took for granted that they were saying exactly what it was. She really didn’t consider it stonewalling, she just thought that she could not get the information she needed and she was trying for over 50 years to get the information for her father,” he said.

Waters also said that a call placed to the right person eventually got the process moving forward.

“Senator Heller’s office broke the logjam and was able to get enough information for her. Now that she has got it all, I suggested that we should have a proper memorial ceremony to recognize Lt. Walker and she was overjoyed with that. Congressman Steven Horsford is doing a lot for veterans in this area and a representative from his office was also at the ceremony,” he said.

Waters cautioned others who have had similar experiences with government red tape to never give up trying.

“Sometimes you do have to go through a senator or congressman to get the military to move because a lot of people who are giving the responses are not military but civilians. They are doing the best they can but many times they just don’t know,” he said.

At the time of Walker’s death, there were differing observations regarding the circumstances of the fateful training accident Waters said.

It was decades later when the pilot’s daughter became privy to the information.

“Jill received some additional information from the Marine Corps that stated they saw the plane before it sank. The Navy stated it sank within 45 seconds but Jill had come to learn from the Marine Corps, who were on another ship in the area, that it was actually 45 minutes before it sank,” he said.

Lt. Walker graduated from Oak Grove High School in Mississippi.

He later graduated from Arkansas State College and joined the U.S. Navy, where he became a chief flight instructor and trained many new pilots, including former President George H.W. Bush.

After Walker crashed his Navy Corsair fighter plane in the South Pacific on Jan. 15, 1945, his body was never recovered.

“They said that they could not reach him. He was practicing with several other units in taking off and landing on the carrier and the plane stalled, crashed and sank. He was spotted by a warrant officer from the Marine Corps but they could not reach him in time. I will always thank the Marine Corps for trying to rescue him,” the daughter recalled.

Walker-Guitard also said that her mother and father had a very special relationship during their brief three-plus years of marriage.

It was the type of relationship many couples married or not, would envy.

“I believe that those three years were the best of her life. The love that they had for each other. I can assure you that people lived a lifetime and never experienced what my mother and father had during those three years.

“It was a truly wonderful thing and I have all of their letters tied in a pink ribbon written between the two of them expressing their love for each other and looking forward to seeing one another after the war. I’m even envious of the love they had for each other. In her later years my mother developed several health problems and she died in my arms on Valentine’s Day,” she said.

Walker-Guitard has been a Pahrump resident for more than 10 years.

She lives with her husband Chris in Artesia.

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