Retired fighter pilot and San Juan Capistrano resident Bill Hardy is honored for his combat service during WWII
By Brian Park
In more ways than one, Bill Hardy has always been a fast riser.
At 18, nearly three years before America’s entry into World War II, Hardy enlisted in the U.S. Navy with the goal of becoming a fighter pilot.
Born and raised in Corning, California, about 50 miles south of Redding, Hardy had been paying his way through college by milking cows.
“My decision was a necessity. I wanted to get away from milking cows from one in the morning and then go to school,” Hardy said. “So it wasn’t patriotic. It was an occupation I was interested in.”
Hardy’s matter-of-fact approach helped him quickly ascend through the ranks as an aviation machinist’s mate, eventually becoming a naval aviator and earning the rank of ensign in 1943. Hardy remained at aviation machinist mate school as an instructor, but following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hardy wanted to do something “more supportive of the war effort,” and so he was sent to Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle, Wash.
At that time, enlisted pilots could not become fighter pilots, so Hardy took a discharge to become a reserve naval aviation cadet. “I must have gone from $175 a month as a first class for flight pay to $75 a month,” Hardy said. “But I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I didn’t want to be an enlisted and do secondary duties. I didn’t want to be a bomber pilot either.”
After going through flight training and receiving his Wings of Gold and commission in December 1943, Hardy was assigned to the VF-17 “Jolly Rogers” fighter squadron and went aboard the USS Hornet in February 1945. In April of that year, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima, Hardy got his first taste of combat.
While flying their F6F Hellcats, Hardy and his wingman spotted two Japanese fighters returning from escorting kamikaze planes that had attacked U.S. ships earlier that day. Hardy and his wingman each shot down one of the planes, and throughout the rest of the early morning, he would pick off four others.
By the time he had flown back to the Hornet and the sun had risen, Hardy had shot down five enemy planes and had become “an ace in a day.” In four months of combat, Hardy had 8 ½ kills to his credit.
“I was well trained and well equipped. At that time, we had better airplanes than the Japanese had, so it was a piece of cake to shoot down those five in the evening,” Hardy said. “The only hairy part of getting five that evening was finding the carrier after dark.”
Now 92 and living in San Juan Capistrano, Hardy is still an ace among his peers. He currently serves as vice president and director of the American Fighter Aces Association and is an active member of the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Serra Post 3801.
A picture of Hardy with his fighter plane currently hangs on a wall in the VFW’s new office on Del Obispo Street in Plaza de Prosperidad. While visiting a friend at the VFW, Francis O’Dwyer spotted Hardy’s picture and instantly wanted to meet the man. As a relative newcomer to San Juan Capistrano and an aviation professional and enthusiast, O’Dwyer said he was drawn to Hardy’s plane.
“I’ve always had this thing about airplanes, especially older airplanes. Nowadays, they’re all designed on computer,” O’Dwyer said. “They were really designed back then and they look really cool. There’s something about the shape of those airplanes.”
After meeting Hardy and getting to know him, O’Dwyer decided to show his appreciation for Hardy’s service the best way he could. He called up his friend, Gary Velasco, who specializes in recreating body panels of vintage and WWII aircrafts, and asked if he could create replica panels of the Hornet Hardy flew on the morning he shot down five planes.
“I said let’s do something cool for him. He’s done so much for us,” O’Dwyer said. “Gary looked up the original panels and he painted them up like the original. I framed it with the rivets in it, and we’re going to have Bill sign it.”
On Thursday night, February 21, O’Dwyer, fellow VFW members, friends and family presented Hardy with the scale-size replica panel of the plane he once flew. The panel features a gas lane door, the Jolly Rogers squadron’s skull-and-cross bones insignia and 8 ½ kill markings. Another panel will be donated to the VFW.
“Those guys don’t get enough appreciation,” O’Dwyer said. “I just wanted to do something cool that will be hanging here long after he and I are gone. People will ask, ‘Who was this guy?’ Well, he’s a war hero.”