Joseph G. Wilson, 83, a retired three-star Air Force general who piloted bombers in World War II and later commanded allied air force operations in Southern Europe, died of pulmonary disease June 8 at a hospital in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. He lived in Destin, Fla.
Gen. Wilson, a highly decorated officer who spent 34 years in uniform, flew combat missions in World War II and Vietnam. He was the first commander of Air Force special operations units and helped devise tactics in use today. He served four tours of duty in Vietnam between 1960 and 1972, including classified missions, led fighter units into battle and played a role in planning overall operations for the Air Force.
"Joe Wilson was an Air Force leader and commander who always accepted the toughest assignments and succeeded at them," said retired Air Force Gen. John Michael Loh, former commander of the service's Air Combat Command, who first met Gen. Wilson in 1963 as a young fighter pilot under his command. "He was an exceptional pilot behind the controls."
Gen. Wilson enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1943. By the next year, he was a commissioned officer who ended up flying 300 hours of bombing missions over Europe as the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress. After the war, he was part of the inaugural squadron of pilots to fly the P-80 Shooting Star, the first jet fighter used by the Air Force.
In 1948, he was assigned to Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon and later helped develop plans for how fighter aircraft should be deployed in combat.
From 1960 to 1964, he was stationed in Japan, commanding the Air Force's mobile strike force in the Pacific and, later, a fighter unit. In 1965, Gen. Wilson was posted to Vietnam, where he commanded the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the first unit to fly the F-4C Phantom II in combat. He piloted missions in the new fighter himself.
"When he commanded the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 'Wolf Pack,' " Loh said, "he forged them into a combat-ready unit. He molded them into a tough fighting force as a commander. They earned a heroic reputation and a legacy that stands to this day."
In 1969, Gen. Wilson took command of the first special operations unit in the Air Force, then returned to Vietnam the next year. After his promotion to lieutenant general in 1973, he took command of allied air forces in Southern Europe, based in Naples, and held double duty as commander of the 16th Air Force in Spain.
He retired in 1977.
Gen. Wilson was awarded more than 40 medals and commendations in the Air Force. Among them were the Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit, six awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, 19 awards of the Air Medal and two awards of the Joint Services Commendation Medal.
He was wounded by flak that pierced the fuselage of his B-17 during World War II, his son said, but he refused to wear the Purple Heart he was entitled to, because, in the general's words, "Any damned fool can get shot."
After retiring from the Air Force, Gen. Wilson lived in Great Falls and was a consultant to Litton Industries, a defense contractor. He moved to Mary Esther, Fla., in 1982.
Joseph Griswold Wilson was born in Richmond, spent part of his childhood in India, where his father was an engineer, and graduated from high school in Williamsburg. He attended Virginia Tech before entering the military and later graduated from the Army War College.
His wife of 60 years, Helen Hodnett Wilson, died in 2002. One son, Air Force 1st Lt. Joseph G. Wilson III, died in combat in Southeast Asia in 1969.
Survivors include two children, Laurie Kelly of Destin and Robert Wilson of Manassas; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.