For Marine pilots young and old, the name Henry Wildfang is legendary.
Henry Wildfang, nicknamed Bud, was born in Bismarck in 1916 and raised in Sterling, North Dakota. After graduation from high school, a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and 3 years of college, Bud was accepted in the Navy Aviation program and began a 37 year career as a Marine Corps pilot.
Wildfang served in World War 2, Korea and Vietnam. He racked up an astounding 24,000 hours in the cockpit, qualifying in 21 different aircraft. Bud was awarded 5 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 29 Air Medals and the Purple Heart.
Wildfang’s fifth Distinguished Flying Cross and his Purple Heart were earned on February 10th, 1968. Bud was delivering fuel desperately needed by the 26th Marine regiment at the Khe Sahn combat base in Vietnam. Bud’s C-130 Hercules Transport broke out of the overcast into a hail of hostile ground fire that shattered a portion of the right wing and set fire to the aircraft. Wildfang set down on the shell-pocked jungle strip and rolled the flaming plane into the edge of the jungle to keep the runway clear. 7 of the 10 crewmembers were killed, and Bud would forever carry burn scars on his hands and arms from trying to save his crewmates.
On August 31st, 1977, Wildfang received the Gray Eagle Award from the Navy Air Corp. In part, the award states: “You, Henry Wildfang, are the first Gray Eagle recipient still on the squadron rolls and flying daily. Your flight hours exceeds that of any other Navy or Marine Aviator on active duty. You are a legend in your own time. From Corsairs to Hercules. From Pusan to Khe Sanh. You have created a standard of dedication and service to Naval Aviation everywhere.”
Bud retired from the Marines in 1978 and moved to Midwest City, Oklahoma where he enjoyed many years of retirement with his wife and family. In 2011 Bud was inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame.
The Marines never forgot about Bud Wildfang. The award and trophy presented annually by the Marine Aviation Association to the premier Marine Aerial Refueler Transport came to be known as the “Henry Wildfang Award.”
On this date in 2015, Henry “Bud” Wildfang passed away at the age of 99. He is interned in the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan.
Dakota Datebook by Scott Nelson
Sources: Bismarck Tribune Henry Wildfang obituary. Marine Corp records on Henry. Book – Enlisted Naval Aviation Pilots by Turner Publishing