William Johnston Hovde
Colonel, United States Air Force
of his classmates, United States Military Academy:
William Johnston Hovde
William Johnston Hovde was born to Ole and Lou Hovde in Crookston, Minnesota. He grew up there, graduating from Central High School in 1935. He attended the University of North Dakota during 1936–38, receiving a freshman scholarship award. Obviously serious about a military career, he enlisted in the National Guard and joined the ROTC program at the university. Upon receiving his appointment to West Point, William attended the Silverman Preparatory School in New York City.
In July 1939, he was happily sworn in as a cadet. He was popular and affectionately known as “Billy.” Naturally athletic and well coordinated, he excelled in a variety of sports — he was an outstanding boxer and an intramural star. Writing in the class Howitzer, his roommate accurately forecast the future success of Billy as an Amy Air Corps and USAF officer and pilot.
“His wit, personal magnetism, and rare culture captivated all who knew him; we are certain that with his courage, determination, and natural ability he will be one of the Air Corps’ finest pilots and most capable officers.”
It was a dream come true when Billy received his pilot’s wings in December 1942. “I always wanted to fly,” he said. Soon after graduation from West Point on 19 January 1943, Billy began fighter pilot training at Spence Field, Georgia. In April, he was ordered to Philadelphia as flight leader in a fighter operational training unit. Three months later, in July, he joined with the 355th Fighter Group of the Eighth Air Force, England, flying scores of combat missions as a flight leader.
A particularly noteworthy mission was early in 1944.
“The ‘gallantry in action, determination and devotion to duty’ displayed by William J. Hovde, 26-year-old Mustang pilot from Crookston, Minnesota, during a bomber escort mission has earned him the Silver Star . . . leading a flight of four Mustangs . . . deep into Germany on March 18 . . . when 15 Focke-Wulf 190s launched an attack against the bomber force, . . . Captain Hovde, with disregard for the numerical superiority of the enemy . . . led his flight in a vigorous assault, destroying an FW 190. When enemy fighters attacked while he was reforming his flight . . . Captain Hovde engaged and destroyed one FW 190 . . . two enemy fighters attacked his aircraft. Exhibiting exceptional courage and superior combat skill, he turned into the attacking fighters and followed one . . . heavily damaging him, before being forced to break off the chase because of an exhausted supply of ammunition.”
Ater completing his combat tour in May 1944, Billy came back to the States for rest and recuperation. Not content in stateside duties and highly dedicated to his West Point tradition of “Duty, Honor, Country,” he volunteered for a second combat tour. He rejoined the 355th Fighter Group as a squadron commander in July 1944. He continued to excel as a pilot and leader. His most noteworthy achievement was recorded in the Class of January 1943 50th Anniversary Yearbook.
“Billy Hovde won the only Distinguished Service Cross in the class in P-51s. In December 1944 . . . leading three squadrons of P-51s that were escorting B-17s and B-24s to Berlin, Billy’s flight circled at 28,000 feet at the initial point for the bomb run. He spotted 80 FW 190s and ME-109s massed to attack the bombers. The Germans did not see Billy because of the sun, and he and his wingman were able to maneuver behind them. A wild swarming dogfight ensued. When he finally ran out of ammunition, Billy ‘hit the deck.’ at full throttle with five and one-half victories.”
Ater WWII ended, Billy described the rest of his life in that same yearbook himself. His sense of humor and warm, friendly nature are reflected in his commentary.
“Following graduation came the best of times: shooting down 12 and one-half German fighters, awarded DSC, SS, 5 DFCs, 9 AMs, and foreign decorations. With occupation duty in Germany, I met Norma ‘Butch’ Gentner, a touring ballerina who later became my wife. Being such a handsome devil, she chased me for four years. We met in Augsburg, Germany; courted at March Field; wed at Albrook AFB, CO; honeymooned in Quito, Ecuador. At March AFB, I pioneered jet fighters while Butch danced in movies to keep up her chase. Friends at March gave us six months at most. In ’89 we celebrated 40 years!
“After a tour as fighter advisor to the Ecuadorian AF, it was off to Korea with 4th FG. Shot down one MIG15 (one DFC, two AMs). Next to Mexico for first of two attaché assignments. Onto Ethan Allen AFB as base CO and 14th Ftr Gp CO (LM). Air War College followed by Pentagon . . . back to Mexico as air attaché. Retired there to try my luck from under the military umbrella and make some money. After nine years in the liquor business, retired again to return to San Antonio. Became president of the American Fighter Association and have been on the board of directors since. Golf is our main hobby; I garden and Butch is active in stamp collecting and business. Dogs have been and are our loves . . . ”
Thus we have a brief account of one whose accomplishments as a military pilot undoubtedly exceeded his boyhood dreams. Billy flew as he lived, facing dangers courageously — a classmate whom we loved and admired. Now he lies peacefully in Arlington National Cemetery along with his lovely Butch, who followed him in death in October 2000.
A most fitting epitaph to Billy is quoted in part from the poem, “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
— A classmate
Photo Courtesy of Russell C. Jacobs, August 2006
HOVDE, EDNA NORMA
HOVDE, WILLIAM JOHNSTON