June 15, 1922 – May 17, 2013
William J. Soltis never considered himself a guardian angel, but that’s how South Korea came to view the North Tonawanda man.
After 100 combat missions during the Korean War, including one in which he was shot down, Mr. Soltis was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the Air Force and Korean Medal of Peace by the South Korean government.
During a ceremony in Seoul in 2001, on the 50th anniversary of the war, a South Korean general looked at Mr. Soltis and five other veterans and said, “You all deserve to be called the guardian angels, who preserved the tradition and history of Korea and truly the freedom and lives of its people.”
Mr. Soltis died Friday at his home in North Tonawanda. He was 90.
“My father was typical of the Greatest Generation in that he loved his God, his country and his family,” said Linda Soltis, who chronicled her father’s return to Korea for The Buffalo News in 2002. “In serving his country and United States Air Force, he got the ‘bonus prize’ because it allowed him to pursue his other great love, which was flying.”
A native of Albion, Pa., Mr. Soltis developed his love of flying at an early age and, when World War II started, he followed his brother Daniel into the armed services and flew P-38 fighters while stationed in the Aleutian Islands. His brother died in 1944, when his B-17 bomber crashed in Italy on takeoff.
Mr. Soltis stayed in the Air Force and, as a flight leader during the Korean War, was shot down on his 69th combat mission in 1951, crash-landing in the Han River near Seoul. He escaped unhurt.
In the citation that came with his Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Force cited Mr. Soltis’ role that day in leading two other F-51s to the Kumwha area of North Korea, where they discovered a large collection of enemy troops, vehicles and gas supplies.
“Despite accurate ground fire, Lt. Soltis continued to press his attack on this target,” the citation says. “In sustaining ground fire, Lt. Soltis was struck in the engine of his ‘mustang’ causing the loss of oil and coolant. With calmness and resourcefulness, he nursed his damaged aircraft across the bomb line and was forced to crash-land in the Han River.”
Even after the war, Mr. Soltis continued to fly, and after completing jet training in 1952, he was assigned to the Niagara Falls Air Force Base. He lived at the time in Snyder, across the hall from American Airline stewardesses, one of whom was his future wife, Mary Newland of Toronto.
Mr. Soltis ended up making the Air Force his career – he retired as a major – and later flew the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo supersonic jet fighter, F-102 and Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. He was no stranger to breaking the speed of sound.
After his retirement in 1963, he and his wife settled in Wheatfield, and Mr. Soltis began a second career in the field of Civil Defense for the City of Niagara Falls. He retired again in 1976.
His survivors include his wife, Mary; a son, Michael; a daughter, Linda Lee; and two brothers Robert and Gilbert. His daughter Andrea died in 1992.
A memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Thursday in North Presbyterian Church, 168 Payne Ave., North Tonawanda.