Gene was born at Mt. Pisgah (East Troy, Pennsylvania) on January 17, 1930, the second son of Herbert Elwyn and Myra Losey Wilber. Gene was predeceased by his parents, and by his younger brother, Richard. He is survived by his wife of 62 and one half years, Jeanne Ayers Wilber.
Gene spent his young life working on various farms with his family throughout the Troy and Mansfield area, settling in Wells Township, Bradford County, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Troy High School where he and Jeanne had been classmates and best friends. After high school, Gene enlisted as an airman recruit in the United States Navy and completed initial training at Great Lakes, Illinois. He gained his initial fleet experience with Attack Squadron 35 (VA-35). While serving as an aviation electrician’s mate, Gene was selected into the Naval Aviation Cadet (NAVCAD) program for flight training. Upon completion of flight training, Gene was commissioned as an ensign wearing the gold wings of a naval aviator. He completed advanced training and deployed to the Korean theater beginning in 1951, for the first of four combat tours flying night attack in the A-1 (AD) Skyraider, as the youngest naval aviator in that war. Between deployments to Korea, Gene and Jeanne became engaged, and were married in Elmira, New York on December 27, 1952, beginning what would prove to be a storybook marriage – centered on their mutual Christian faith – that would grow even stronger in the face of unusual challenges. After a few short weeks together, Gene, as the only pilot to do so, deployed a second time to fight in the Korean conflict, returning after the 9 month deployment in December 1953 to the home of his in-laws, J. Edgar and Catherine L. Ayers, in Daggett, Pennsylvania, reuniting with his wife, Jeanne, and two-week-old son, Bruce. Soon, it was back to Coronado, California, to complete his squadron tour, until he received orders to Kingsville, Texas, to be a flight instructor. In June 1955 (on Father’s Day), their second son, Thomas, was born. The young family next moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where Gene served as catapult and arresting gear officer (V-2 division) on USS Essex (CV-9). Gene made several long deployments over the next few years including a 6 month deployment, extended into 12 months, due to the Beirut crisis in 1958, and to provide air support in the straits of Formosa. While serving as V2 Officer, Gene continued his love of flying by qualifying in all the aircraft types on board USS Essex, even though he was in a ship’s company billet. In 1959, during flight operations while Gene was on watch as flight deck officer on the Essex, a plane crashed into other parked planes, resulting in an immediate explosion and intense fire involving live ordnance. Gene extinguished the blazing clothing of one of the men in the vicinity of the burning airplanes by using his own body as a smothering blanket, and by removing and using some of his own clothing to put out the flames. He then went under one of the burning aircraft to assist an injured man to safety. For his conduct he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Heroism. True to Gene’s character was the fact that he never told his wife, Jeanne, so that she wouldn’t worry. Jeanne first learned of his heroic act at an award ceremony for Gene stateside, months after the incident happened. Gene followed his sea tour on Essex with a semester at UCLA in Los Angeles, California, and another operational tour flying the F-8 Crusader with Fighter Squadron 11 (VF-11) deploying on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42), homeported in Jacksonville, Florida, where their son Mark was born in 1960. While the family lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia, when Gene was a jet aircraft accident investigator, their daughter Susan was born in Norfolk in 1962. Gene continued his exemplary service as a student at Army Command and General Staff College, returning to naval aviation billets including assignment as Executive Officer, and, on March 29, 1968, as Commanding Officer of Fighter Squadron 102 (VF-102) flying the Navy’s premier F4-J Phantom II. In April of 1968, Gene’s squadron deployed with Carrier Air Wing 6 on USS America (CV-66) for a WESTPAC deployment to operate in Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of North Vietnam. It was during the ship’s first line period that, while engaging the enemy as combat air patrol for fleet defense, Gene’s plane was shot down on June 16, 1968 (Father’s Day), resulting in the death of Gene’s friend and radar intercept officer, Bernie Rupinski. Gene ejected less than two seconds before the plane hit the ground, beginning an arduous period of four years and eight months of captivity in Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, from which Gene was released on February 12, 1973, returning to his family and taking up residence at his farm in Pennsylvania where he lived for the rest of his life. After retiring from the Navy, having given more than 25 years of military service to his country that he dearly loved, he transitioned to a career as farmer, air charter pilot, and supporter to Jeanne with her quilt business, the Strawberry Patch Calico Shop, for many enjoyable years. Over these years he was a member of the board of the Troy Area School District and was a devoted member and deacon of Austinville Union Church. In his later years Gene remained active with outdoor work, always ready to stop his tasks and lend a helping hand to neighbor, friend or stranger, often interrupting his garden work to wave at passersby. Along with Jeanne, family was paramount for Gene, and together they would prepare frequent meals at their home for their four children, twenty grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren and any guests they would bring along. Gene brought guidance, compassion, laughter and love to his many generations. The core of his heart belonged to Christ, and he was a shining example of how to demonstrate God’s love.
In addition to his wife Jeanne, Gene is also survived by his older brother Leslie, his sister-in-law Dorothy Wilber, and his younger sister Beverly Evans (Harland); children Bruce, Thomas (Linda), Mark (Rebecca) and Susan Efthimiou (Marcus); grandchildren John (Kristin), Joe (Sony), Summer Berry (Mat), Matthew, Chris (Sara), Andrew, Mattea, Isaac, Maryah, Misha, and Sanna, Rachael Stock (Mitch), Daniel (Hanna) Efthimiou, and Anna, Mikaela, Abram, Miina, Emma, Noah, and Isaiah Efthimiou; great grandchildren Cole, Luke and Sienna Berry; Wes, Abriana, and John Michael Wilber, Jr.; Owen and Grace Stock; Audrick Wilber; and unborn baby girl Wilber (Joe and Sony); and many, many devoted and beloved nieces and nephews.
He will be sorely missed by his devoted family, and yet they rejoice that Gene has found peace in his heavenly home. Well done, our kind and gentle hero.
A celebration of Gene’s life was held at Austinville Union Church on Tuesday, July 14, 2015, beginning with visitation and viewing from 9 AM to 11 AM, followed by a funeral service led by the Reverend Ken Marple (Gene’s pastor for over 35 years). Committal was at Job’s Corners Cemetery at 12:30 PM with full military honors, followed by a luncheon reception at Austinville Union Church.
Flowers will be provided by the family. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to Austinville Union Church in Gene’s memory, or, to continue Gene’s interest in the identification and recovery of remains of military personnel lost in action, including his friend, Bernie, contributions may be made to Servicemember Recovery Foundation, Post Office Box 82, Mansfield, PA 16933-0082.
Arrangements have been entrusted to Olthof Funeral Home. Gene's guestbook may be signed in obituaries at www.olthof.com