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,”