How Sherman Gillespie changed my life

On Friday, I have the wonderful honor of speaking to the Aviation Enthusiasts club at the Villages, a retirement community in San Jose. The club is comprised largely of retired pilots, mechanics, engineers and others who have real-life experience with aircraft (as opposed to my semi-real life experience!). I was invited because the head of this group, Sherman Gillespie, is also celebrating his 88th birthday that day. Sherman and I shared an experience that literally changed my life.

Back in 2002, I worked as the editor of several small community papers in San Jose (how small? They were monthlies!) and a similar magazine called 50 Plus, which I think was perhaps the best idea for a magazine in that group. That’s an audience that’s only getting bigger, and a magazine dedicated to active people – and those trying to become active – in that age range is just a natural. Anyhow, one cover story I wrote for 50 Plus was about Jim Lund, who at the time had 1200 built 1:72 models and spoke about how the craft kept him mentally sharp, motivated and physically active (within reason). Jim appeared on the cover of the magazine “applying the final touches” to a DC-6 in 1:72 (actually, he was rubbing a clean paintbrush on the side in a staged photo that I took!). This caught the eye of one of the members of the aircraft enthusiasts, who called and said that the head of their group had been a B-17 pilot in World War II.

At almost the same time, I received a note from the EAA that its B-17, “Aluminum Overcast,” would be in the area. They invited me and another member of my staff to come on a flight. Since the staff was, essentially, me, I had an unclaimed pass. That’s when I got the idea to call Sherman.

I phoned him up. “Mr. Gillespie, you don’t know me, but I’m the editor of the community paper and 50 Plus,” I said. “I have an invitation to go up in a B-17 – would you like to come along?” Sherman said he’d have to check with his wife. When he called back, he said “Barbara said I’d have to be crazy – not to go!”

We drove up to Hayward for the flight, and I found him to be a warm, outgoing man. After the war, he became a high school teacher specializing in Spanish, and had a long career before his retirement. He flew 17 missions before his plane was badly hit and he was forced to divert to Sweden, where he was interned. Later, the U.S. swapped Sweden a batch of P-51s in exchange for several hundred airmen, who were shuttled across occupied Norway and back to the U.K. “The Brits made us go through customs!” said Sherman.

Someday I hope to tell the story of the interned airmen in Sweden, who lived a strange – but not unpleasant – existence in Sweden. Although they were able to mingle in town, get paid through the U.S. legation, and enjoy themselves in Sweden, most felt bad about being out of the war. They felt worse when U.S. magazines ran articles implying they were off on holiday in Sweden while other airmen continued to fight; the reality was that for most of them, their options had been a landing in Sweden or an icy death in the North Sea. After they landed, they simply functioned under the circumstances in Sweden as best as they could.

The flight was memorable, and even more memorable was how the modern crew of the bomber was fascinated to hear Sherman’s stories. They spent 45 minutes asking him questions and learning more about the aircraft they were flying. I wrote up the event in 50 plus and in the community paper (which resulted in several letters from Sherman’s past students!), and, encouraged by Tom Cleaver, pitched the story of Sherman’s last mission to Flight Journal magazine. They picked it up for a B-17 special issue; it was the first World War II story I had ever written and my real entry into writing about aviation. I owe all of that to Sherman. He truly changed my life.

It’ll be a lot of fun to speak about the Fourth Fighter Group to the Aviation enthusiasts – especially since one of those who’ll be in the audience is Willard Gillette, a member of the Fourth who’s actually mentioned several times in the book! That also means I’ll have to be at the top of my game; there’ll be someone in the audience who knows the story better than I do! That – and seeing Sherman – promise to make this a wonderful, memorable Friday. I’m really looking forward to it.

15 Comments

  1. I believe I was in Sherman Gillespie’s Spanish Class and would like to contact him. I was in a model airplane club and want the plans to the plane we built. I also visit San Jose every 1.5 months and would like to buy him lunch.

  2. Sherman Gillespie is my uncle. He is my father’s youngest brother and next to my dad, my hero. I never really knew much about Sherman’s story until later in my life. It was amazing that a 22 year old pilot had the cool, calm strength to save the members of his crew and his plane by landing in Sweden. Hearing him tell the story at a family reunion celebrating his birthday was thrilling. My brother and I have always thought he is a special person in our lives.

    • Sherman “Gil” Gillespie wrote an article that was published by Air Classic magazine in 1978. I would love to find a copy of the article.

    • Mr. Gillespie was my Aeronautics instructor at Mt. Pleasant. He told us the stories of his adventures over Europe many times. I still tell that story of being forced to land in Sweden to my friends. I even shake my right arm as I recount trying to press the throttles forward to the firewall to get every ounce of energy to get back above the clouds without blowing one of the remaining engines. Mr. Gillespie had a profound and positive impact in my life. I was the president of the model aviation club at Mt. Pleasant. I never forget how proud I was the day he told me he was impressed with the performance of one of my models. Oh, and I got to see the gadfly in person!

  3. Sherman Gillespie is my great-uncle and his stories have always been a great source of pride in our family. Thank you so much for writing about his story.

    Jennifer

    • Wow! I just took my Son to see the Aluminum Overcast in memory of my Uncle Sgt. Myron “Mike” Berry who was the Ball Turret Gunner on that flight that landed in Sweden. Amazing to read that the first plane Sherman went back up in was the AO 🙂

  4. I was priveleged to have met Mr. Gillespie back in high school (80’s) and thoroughly enjoyed being in his aeronautics class. The best part of the class was not learning about aeronautics, but listening to Mr. Gillespie’s stories about his time as a B-17 pilot during WWII. There times when he would get a little emotional while sharing his experiences. Needless to say, I will never forget the man. He made me appreciate the great sacrifices that were made by many brave pilots in WWII. I found this post because I was watching a WWII in HD special recently and one B-17 pilot flying over enemy territory. It made me think about Mr. Gillespie and I wondered if he was still alive and how he was doing.

    • Hello, Eric,

      My uncle Sherman Gillespie is doing fine. He still tells stories about his B17 WWII experiences to our family. He is 89 years old now, but is as sharp as ever. Thank you for remembering him
      Janet

      • My Uncle Myron “Mike” Berry was the Ball Turret Gunner on the flight with Sherman Gillespie that went down in Sweden.

    • I would love to know if you have any info about my Uncle from your Uncle? I have a copy of the after action type report.

  5. How. Can anyon e come close to this story ! As a modeler and a veteran I am left speechless. Truly amazing!

  6. My name is An Vo. I was a former member of his model airplane club – The Cardinal Flyers at Mount Pleasant High School in the early 90’s . I didn’t know much about aviation back then but definitely became fascinated after meeting Mr. Gillespie and his buddies, flying peanut scales, bostonians, micro-film stuff or what not or coming out to watch them fly their crazy thermal soaring- high powered rubber band gliders on the fields of fowler road. Mr. Gillespie was someone I definitely remembered and admired thru the years. its been about 20 years or so. Several times in the past 20 years and in recent years, I googled and search for him on the internet because he was someone I admire and lingered in my thoughts. I am glad I found this site this morning and so glad that I found word of him and that he is doing well.

  7. I remember Mr. Gillespie. He was my Spanish teacher at Mt. Pleasant back in the day. I remember him mentioning he was in WWII but at the time I was too incurious to ask him about it. He was a cool dude.

  8. I knew Sherman Gillespie back when I was attending Mr. Pleasant High School and was a member of his Cardinal Flyers club. I always looked forward to the weekly meetings at lunchtime, along with our monthly gatherings at the gym where we all would fly our planes, made of balsa wood, that we’d assemble from plans taken from Model Builder magazine. Those were some great times.

  9. I’ve known Sherman “Sherm” Gillespie for almost fifty years and it is with a heavy heart having to announce that he took his last flight on May 29th, 2020. Our association was through free flight aeromodeling, both indoors and outdoors and fun flying sessions in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was a long time member of the Oakland Cloud Dusters, formed in 1937, and was also given an Honorary Life membership by the club to honor his involvement in introducing students to the art of building and flying model airplanes. More information will eventually be made available on the Cloud Dusters website and Facebook platforms.
    Sincerely, Fred Terzian
    2020 Oakland Cloud Dusters president


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