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Roswell resident looks back on 97 years

Bill Wichser lived through major 20th century events

Ninety-seven-year-old Bill Wichser lives in Roswell with his son’s family, including his grandson, Alexander, 13. Bill has led an eventful life. JONATHAN COPSEY. (click for larger version)

Bill Wichser (left, holding monkey) and a shipmate ashore in Leyte, Philippines. (click for larger version)

A bombed building on the Pasig River, Manila, 1945. (click for larger version)

Manila, Philippines, 1945 was devastated during the war. (click for larger version)

Japanese soldiers evacuate Manila in December 1944. (click for larger version)

Bringing tanks ashore, Marseille, France, 1944. (click for larger version)

Bill Wichser March 7, 1933 (click for larger version)

Bill Wichser Sept. 1946 (click for larger version)
February 06, 2013
ROSWELL, Ga. – What does one do with life once one reaches the ripe old age of 97? For Roswell resident Bill Wichser, it's whatever he wants, really.

"As old as I am, if I feel like drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette, it doesn't matter," he laughed. "I've lived life and another 20 percent over."

And that he has. Optimistically renewing his AARP membership for a further five years, Wichser has lived quite the life, living through the Great Depression, serving in World War II and riding at the forefront of both aviation and Indy car racing.

Now living with his son's family in Roswell, Wichser (pronounced Wix-er) was born in 1915 and grew up in Tell City, Ind., a small town of Swiss immigrants on the southern tip of the state, along the Ohio River.

Wichser became enamored with aviation, which was still in its infancy. By the time he was 17, he had his pilot's license, a rarity in those days.

"Once I was in an airplane, I [knew] I was going to be an aviator," he said. "I never lost my enthusiasm for it."

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Wichser tried to enlist in the newly formed Air Force for work, but he was rejected because military pilots were required to have perfect vision.

"I couldn't pass the eye exam," he said.

He moved to Indianapolis, where he lived until 2007, and started his own construction company.

"Putting up a nice building is a nice feeling," he said. "You know you're creating something that will be there a long time after you're dead and gone."

He threw himself into construction and eventually real estate (which gave him more time for flying).

"Like everything I got into, I was enthusiastic about it," he said.

Then came the Second World War.

"My brother was at my house when the Pearl Harbor attack [Dec. 7, 1941] came over the radio. He listened for 15 minutes and ran to the recruiting station and the Navy," he said.

Despite his best attempts, the Air Force continued to refuse his service, and, two years later, Wichser joined the Navy as well. He did it as a way to see the world aboard the USS Gentry, a destroyer escort ship.

"I wanted to get in there and see what it was all about," he said.

Not only did he serve in all theaters of the war – ending in the Pacific – he took souvenirs in the form of photographs of his travels.

"[A camera] was really against regulations, a very serious offense," he said, "but I wanted to take pictures."

Wichser took dozens of photos, snapping pictures of his travels.

Bombed out cities, American forces on the move, fleeing Japanese soldiers and the then-unpublished atrocities of war were balanced with the serene Pacific landscapes and natives or his shipmates goofing off.

During his time at sea, he hunted German U-boats in the Atlantic and avoided Japanese bombers in the Pacific.

He had the dubious joy of hearing the war end twice – the first time turned out to be a false report while he was stationed in Okinawa.

"It was a false report," he said.

He and his shipmates found this out when a Japanese plane attacked that night.

"We then heard the war was not over," he said.

It was another three days before peace would be officially declared.

"I looked at the guy next to me and said, 'By God, we won it in spite of ourselves,'" he laughed.

After the war, Wichser returned to Indianapolis and his planes, and dabbled in the relatively new sport of car racing, much of which was still done on dirt horse tracks.

He bought his own car, however he never drove in a race.

"The most I did was I went around the track a few times," he said.

He spent his time in the pits as a mechanic, and worked in several races, including the Indianapolis 500.

In his 97 years of life, Wichser has seen a lot of change and picked up a thing or two about living.

People's attitudes have changed, he said. In the Great Depression, everyone had to pull together to survive.

"People were more considerate then and helped each other," he said. "Now, it's every man for himself."

The biggest change is the increase in government over its peoples' lives.

"I remember during the Great Depression, there was no government help then. Now it's all government programs. Back then... the only government you had to deal with was the local and state and there was little of that. Now every move you make, the government is involved. In a lot of ways good, and a lot of ways bad."

Aviation in particular has changed significantly.

"If I flew without a [pilot's] license, nobody cared and it wasn't enforced," he said. "Why bother with a license? Would that make me a better pilot? But aviation could not be what it is today without regulation. Then, when people flew airplanes, it wasn't a question of if you are going to get killed, but when."

In the end, everything comes down to what you make of your own life.

"All you ever have in life, you earn with either your back or your brains," he said. "No one is going to give you anything,"

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  1. report print email
    Bill Wichser 97 years old
    February 09, 2013 | 02:32 PM

    Amazing to be still so vivid.
    The writer of the artivle did a fine description of my old friend. stemming from Switzerland. I know him since 1968.
    Thank you very much!

    Walter Steger
    CH - 8595 Altnau Switzerland
  2. report print email
    bill wichser's amazing life
    February 09, 2013 | 11:50 PM

    Bill is my husband's 2nd or 3rd cousin {doesn't matter} and we keep in touch by phone or note. You probably don't know this, Bill {until now} but our children have known about you and followed your story for a long time, especially Daughter Lisa Wichser Jones. Also our 3 grandsons Matthew Harding,Julian Wichser Jones and Benjamin Wichser. You were an important builder and businessman here in Indy. We know much of the Wichser family history because of you and your Swiss connections. Keep on keepin' on, Bill. Love, Julia

    julia wichser
  3. report print email
    He is SO right...
    February 10, 2013 | 05:39 PM

    "The biggest change is the increase in government over its peoples' lives....I remember during the Great Depression, there was no government help then. Now it's all government programs. Back then... the only government you had to deal with was the local and state and there was little of that."

    Yep. And now because of that, we have become a nation of bed wetting whiny dependents for everything in our lives. If we don't earn enough money we whine that it's someone else's fault; we whine when corporations earn to much money; we whine like spoiled children when we don't get our own way and everything we want. Me me me, gimmie gimmie gimmie! And the politicians in Washington (especially Democrats) are all to eager to please that mentality.

    There is no way in hell this nation today and the whiners it is comprised of could have survived the Great Depression, let alone fought in World War II. We have become completely detached from the harsh realities that built this nation's character, and the character of the people that made this nation. Today, it's all about everyone "getting their fair share" without even working towards getting it themselves through hard work, tenacity, and merit.

    This nation will not last another 50 years of useful idiots that vote themselves entitlements.

  4. report print email
    February 11, 2013 | 01:25 AM

    You certainly have experienced many exciting changes and have a lot of great history to share! Sadly, along the way we have deviated from the importance of the family unit. Thanks for sharing - great pictures!!!!

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