WARSAW — Warsaw resident Harold Rex Wildman, known by most as “Rex,” was honored as veteran of the month at the Kosciusko Commissioners meeting Tuesday, April 16.
“It’s a bit of a bittersweet morning for the Wildman family,” Kosciusko Veteran Affairs Officer Rich Maron told those in attendance prior to presenting Wildman with a plaque. “Last night Rex lost his precious wife, so our hearts are with you all this morning.”
Despite this devastating loss, over 20 family members attended the event to support Wildman as he was being honored. Many friends of Wildman’s were in attendance as well.
Born in Deedsville to Ellis and Frances (Balsbaugh) Wildman, he was the oldest of 10 siblings. When Wildman was 9 years old, the family moved to a farm south of Oswego. He graduated from Leesburg High School.
Wildman was fresh out of high school when the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In January 1943, Wildman enlisted, leaving rural Indiana for Geiger Field in Washington as part of a combat engineering group.
“I had no intention of flying,” said Wildman. That changed when he saw a group of pilots exit a plane wearing nice, clean uniforms. Wildman looked down at his clothes, dirty from manual labor, and made the decision to sign up for flight training.
Many service members dreamed of piloting single-engine pursuit fighter planes, a coveted position during WW II. Wildman had that same dream; however, there was a need for pilots to operate twin-engine cargo planes that flew in the China-Burma-India Operation in the Pacific Theater.
Wildman was assigned there, where he became one of the famous “hump” pilots, whose main task was to fly troops and supplies from Burma over the Himalayan mountains.
Wildman flew 50 missions through unpredictable and extreme weather and treacherous terrain that, over the course of the war, claimed over 600 planes and more than 1,000 lives — fully a third of the men who flew this route over “the roof of the world.”
Wildman recalled that many times he was flying blind over the mountains due to radio instruments freezing up.
Following the war’s conclusion, Rex left the U.S. Army Air Force as a first lieutenant in 1946 and returned to Indiana.
He married Lorabel Ferverda in 1946 and they had five children: Steve (Susan) Wildman, Boulder, Co.; Kent (Roxanne) Wildman, Warsaw; Brent (Karen) Wildman, Winona Lake; Wendy — deceased (Bob) Long, Warsaw; and Rod (Nancy) Wildman, Winona Lake. There are also 16 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
After working as a fuel distributor for Standard Oil, he launched his career as a businessman with the purchase of a dry cleaning business in Nappanee. In 1963, they moved the company to Warsaw, and at that time the business was known as Warsaw Cleaners and Shirt Laundry, also known as Buffalo Street Cleaners. This later became Wildman Uniform & Linen.
Rex belongs to the Warsaw Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He was a member of the Kiwanis International organization in both Nappanee and Warsaw, serving as president of the Warsaw club in 1985. Wildman was a member of the Warsaw City Council from 1980 through 1984.
“Rex is a humble man. He’s a very intelligent, quiet-spoken man of integrity and strong Christian values,” said Warsaw resident Jim Merritt, who has known Wildman for 40 years. “He and his family have been pillars in the community for many years. Rex is respected by all who know him.”
“It is an exciting day to be able to finally honor one of the most special men in our entire county this morning,” said Maron. “Rex Wildman is a man who answered his country’s call, served courageously during the second world war and afterward contributed wholeheartedly to the growth of his country and the betterment of his local community.”
“What’s amazing,” said Maron, referencing the fact that Wildman was seated in a wheelchair, “is that some people can sit down and stand taller than a lot of us who are standing as upright as possible.”