Edwin R. Walthall, 87, WWII vet, RCA engineer

Edwin R. Walthall
Edwin R. Walthall
Posted: May 02, 2013

For Edwin R. Walthall, witnessing a 1951 atomic bomb test as a physicist at Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific was not the first encounter with danger.

Mr. Walthall was a nose gunner on B-17s for 21 missions deep into Nazi Germany during the last days of World War II.

"We were lucky that no one in our crew got a scratch," he wrote in biographical notes for his family, "but some shrapnel penetrated our plane on several missions."

Only on his flight back to the United States did he face imminent peril, he wrote, when his plane landed in Gander, Newfoundland, with only three of its four engines working and low on fuel.

On Friday, April 12, Mr. Walthall, 87, of Cinnaminson, an RCA electronics engineer from 1956 to his retirement in 1988 from General Electric Co., which had acquired RCA, died of heart failure at HealthPark Medical Center in Fort Myers, Fla.

Born in Richmond, Va., Mr. Walthall graduated from John Marshall High School in 1943 and earned a bachelor's degree in physics at the University of Richmond in 1949, daughter Dana White said Tuesday.

But in the few months before the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Mr. Walthall and his crewmates flew as far as the eastern edge of what would become West Germany.

"We lost one aircraft on our second mission over Kassel, when it took a direct hit from an 88 mm antiaircraft shell," he wrote of an accompanying bomber.

"Usually the flak began as we neared the target. At high altitude, you could see the black clouds that the shells made when they exploded, but you couldn't hear them because of the thin air" at 25,000 feet.

"However, we hit some airfields from 12,000 feet, and you could hear the flak then. Each blast sounded like it was right on top of the aircraft."

But because the Luftwaffe had been decimated and improved Allied fighter aircraft were able to accompany bombers to their targets, fewer bombers were lost than before his 1945 flights.

For him, the worst came later.

"The flight home was an exciting one," he wrote, because, after the plane on which he was a passenger left Iceland, one of its engines died.

"The pilot was able to hold altitude at about 6,000 ft. . . . and we made it to Gander with very little fuel to spare."

Mr. Walthall's first job after the war was in the explosives effects division of a naval ordnance laboratory in Washington, a job that brought him within sight of the atomic bomb test in the Marshall Islands, his daughter said.

At RCA, he helped design communications satellites and helped to explain their workings to potential customers on trips to places such as Brazil, Australia and Saudi Arabia, she said.

Besides his daughter, Mr. Walthall is survived by son John, daughters JoAnn Cann and Debra Cargen, and seven grandchildren. His wife, Frances, died in 2008.

A visitation is set from 4:30 p.m. Thursday, May 2, at Village Presbyterian Church, 357 Hartford Rd., Mount Laurel, before a 6 p.m. memorial service there, with a reception to follow in the church's fellowship hall. Burial is to be at Signal Hill Cemetery, Hanover, Va.

Condolences may be offered to the family at www.dignitymemorial.com or sent to Hodges-Kiser Funeral Home, 9231 Cypress Lake Dr., Fort Myers, Fla. 33919.

Contact Walter F. Naedele at 610-313-8134, wnaedele@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @WNaedele.

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