Celebrated since 1939, National Aviation Day, August 19, was created by presidential proclamation to coincide with the birthday of aviation pioneer, Orville Wright. Here at Villa Finale, we are also commemorating the birthday of Walter Nold Maths, the home’s last owner, who would have been 102 years old on August 13th. It’s fitting that we celebrate both occasions by highlighting Mr. Mathis’ time as a pilot during World War II.
First, some little known facts about about Orville Wright. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Orville never finished high school – and neither did his brother, Wilbur – but he and his siblings were encouraged by their father to feed their curiosity through reading as many books as they could get their hands on. Orville also played the mandolin and brewed his own candy. Ever the builder, he made his own printing press while in high school to publish his own newspaper with friends contributing to content. One contributor was his friend, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was the class poet and the only Black student at the school. Although curious by nature, some believe Orville may have been on the autism spectrum due to his being awkward and shy in social situations (although without a proper diagnosis, this cannot be confirmed). In fact, Orville never married but considered his younger sister, Katherine, the dominant female figure in his life and was apparently devastated when she married at the age of 52. Clearly, there was more to Orville Wright than his contributions to aviation. He was an intelligent yet complicated person.
Like Orville Wright, there was also a lot more to Walter Mathis than merely being a collector of decorative art and his restoration of Villa Finale, and up to fourteen other homes in the King William neighborhood alone. At the age of sixteen, Mathis’ mother died suddenly of a heart attack, and this event shaped the person he would become as an adult. Having to work his way through college beginning his sophomore year (his father, Arthur’s business suffered with the stock market crash of 1929 and could not financially support his son’s education) Mathis worked up to three jobs, determined to complete his degree. He had just started a job with the Lone Star Ice Company in 1941, after graduating with a business degree from the University of Texas at Austin, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th. The following morning, Mathis and many other young men rushed to enlist because they believed “Hitler was a menace,” said Mathis. “We believed we were going to save the world. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s simply what we thought.”
Walter Mathis chose to enlist with the Army Air Corps (the aerial division of the Army prior to the establishment of the Air Force in 1947). Up to that point, Mathis had never considered flying airplanes but as he said, “War changed everything.” The first part of his training was with single-engine planes at Garner Field in Uvalde before graduating to twin-engine planes at Ellington Field in Houston. He graduated from his training and received his wings in the summer of 1942 at Randolph Field (now part of Randolph Air Force Base). He and others in his group then spent a few months in South Carolina before being transported to a training center in England on a converted passenger ship.
The training center, used by both the United States and the Royal Air Force, was in the parish of Little Easton in Essex, less than two miles from the historic market town, Great Dunmow. It was here that Mathis, by this time a Lieutenant, was assigned to fly the B-25, called the “flying brick” by pilots because it had no glide, it would drop like a heavy brick when they pulled back the throttle. While at Little Easton, he trained B-25 combat crews in a number of capacities including overseas air raids, pilot fitness for bombing raids, and his specialty, instrument flying. Instrument flying was a valuable skill during the War as pilots needed to be proficient flying in the dark and during weather where having a reference to the ground was nearly impossible.
Walter Mathis flew with the 9th Air Force Pathfinder Squadron in support of General Patton during this time, forty-five missions in the B-25 alone. Once the Germans started retreating, he was moved to Le Bourget, north of Paris to fly front-line support. In February 1945, the Allies focused on strategic bombings to transportation and oil targets in order to drive in the final death nail to the Axis alliance. Twenty-seven pilots from the 9th Air Force, including Mathis (by then a Captain), were chosen to fly the pivotal missions. “We always had another bridge or marshalling yard to strike,” recalled Mathis in an interview. “Always something to bomb.” His last twenty missions were flown in an A-26B, a pursuit bomber – the fastest during World War II – which was heavily armed and could carry up to 4,000 pounds of bombs. The Pathfinders’ job was to lead other bomber groups to a designated target amid heavy fire: if the Pathfinders missed, so would everyone else making their mission a failure.
By the time the War ended in September 1945, Mathis had flown sixty-five missions, an incredible feat considering the average tour of duty for an Army Air Corps pilot consisted of twenty-five missions, with fifteen being the average success rate. “There were twenty-seven of us that went over on that group,” Mathis remembered, “and we would mark the orders every time one of them was killed. And only three of us came back alive. Death flew with us.”
Mathis’ decorations for his accomplishments included air and theater medals, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, and a Presidential Citation for a mission flown over Germany. These were all sent to his father who, along with those of his older brother, Arthur, had them framed and displayed in his office. After Arthur Sr. died, the medals were returned to Walter Mathis who hung them at the entrance to his bedroom suite. When you visit Villa Finale, you can still view them there today.
It is sometimes difficult today with all the air traffic we see in the sky to appreciate not only the technological marvel human flight truly is, but also how it has been used for over one-hundred years in combat. Hats off to the early pioneers of aviation, the pilots who take us safely from point A to point B, and to all the aviators who have courageously put their lives on the line for their country. Thank you for your service, Walter Nold Mathis.
McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Phillips, Charles. (2007). Villa Finale: The Home and Collections of Walter Nold Mathis [Unpublished manuscript]. National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C.
Pfeiffer, Maria Watson. (March 16, 2001). Interviews with Walter Nold Mathis for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Maria Watson Pfeiffer. National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C.