Tale of brothers who fought in World War I live on through Parkersburg man’s efforts

Photo Provided Joseph Volney Wilson, left, and his brother Gill Robb Wilson in France in 1918. Volney was a pilot and Gill was a gunner. Gill was training to be a pilot, but crashed in a plane and sustained injuries so extensive he could no longer manipulate pilot controls.

PARKERSBURG — Two celebrated World War I airmen are the subjects of research by a Parkersburg man.

Gill Robb Wilson and his younger brother Joseph Volney Wilson are the most well-known World War I veterans from the Mid-Ohio Valley, said Bill Miller, whose main interest is military history, particularly aviation.

“There just wasn’t that many airmen,” Miller said. “For every 10,000 soldiers, there were one or two pilots. Very few were aviators.”

The Wilsons were the sons of the Rev. Gill Irwin and Amanda Robb Wilson of present-day Pittsburgh. The father was a Presbyterian minister who served the First Presbyterian Church in Parkersburg for 30-40 years, Miller said.

The 100th anniversary of the end of the World War I is today. The armistice was reached on Nov. 11, 1918.

Photo Provided Gill Robb Wilson and his commanding officer, Charles Kinsolving, pose by a DH-4 airplane in a photo taken in November 1919. Wilson was a gunner and would have protected the plane with the rear machine gun shown in the photo.

The United States did not enter the war until April 1917. U.S. law prevented American citizens from being involved in direct armed combat in the service of a foreign army, however, a citizen could serve in a humanitarian function, such as in a medical or ambulance unit, Miller said.

“That’s what both of them did,” he said.

Wanting to serve in the war, the Wilsons were accepted into an ambulance unit in France, Miller said. Volney, born in 1895 and the younger of the two brothers, left the states in 1916. Gill left in April 1917.

After their three-month service as motorized ambulance drivers, Gill and Volney both joined the French Air Service, Miller said. By this time the U.S. didn’t enforce the prohibition against citizens serving in combat with foreign armies, he said.

The Wilsons joined the French Air Service and were trained as combat pilots, Miller said. They instead chose to become bomber pilots, which they believed would do the most damage to the German army, such as bombing troops on roads, in machine gun nests or artillery positions, he said.

Photo Provided These are the medals and awards received by Gill Robb Wilson and his brother Joseph Volney Wilson for service in France in World War I. Among the medals were the Special Wings issued to Volney by the Lafayette Flying Corps, U.S. pilot wings, a U.S. Army victory medal showing battles in which they fought, a French Cross of War and a medal from the city of Parkersburg given to the family and engraved with Volney’s name.

After Gill completed flight training, he crashed in an outdated French training plane when he attempted to perform a loop, despite being told that the plane was incapable of performing a loop, Miller said.

He sustained numerous injuries and spent several weeks in a hospital, however, talked his way back into active duty and was assigned to a bomber squadron as a rear gunner on a Brequet 14, Miller said. The injuries were so severe he was unable to work the controls of a airplane, Miller said.

Gill flew combat missions until October 1918 when Volney was killed in an airplane crash, Miller said. Gill was transferred to the U.S. 163rd Aero Squadron and served there until the end of the war, Miller said.

Volney was involved in more combat missions than Gill, often volunteering for missions one after the other, Miller said.

“Mission after mission after mission,” Miller said.

Photo Provided This photo of Joseph Volney Wilson taken in April 1918 in Paris was sent to his fiance in Sistersville. The frame is made from the tip of a wooden airplane propeller.

Miller had the chance to speak with Charles Kinsolving, Volney’s commanding officer, who recounted how Volney would after landing from a mission, refuel and restock his plane with bombs, then return to the battle.

“He probably saw more action than any other local veteran,” Miller said.

Airmen were the rock stars of the day, according to Miller, but the work was dangerous and the lifespan wasn’t long, he said.

“You had to have guts,” Miller said. “Your plane was loaded with bombs and you didn’t have a parachute.”

Volney was killed Oct. 23, 1918, at the age of 23. He was flying a new plane and the engine died, Miller said.

Volney was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery. He received the French Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star for his service in the war, Miller said.

After the end of World War I, the Wilsons’ sister had a son who she named Joseph Volney Wilson Harvey after her late brother, Miller said. Harvey joined the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor, became a naval airmen and was killed April 1943 when his plane was lost at sea, Miller said.

Thinking the name may jinxed, Gill asked his daughter that if she ever had another son, not to name him Volney, Miller said.

Gill returned to Parkersburg after the war, Miller said. He became a writer and became influential in the aviation industry.

Gill also is credited with founding the Civil Air Patrol, Miller said. The airfield at the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport is named Gill Robb Wilson Field.

He died September 1966 at the age of 73.