There was no ambiguity about what men of George Wallis’ generation would be doing after college.
“We knew we’d go into the Army,” Wallis said.
After a brief visit with his family in Billings, Wallis went directly from Montana State College in Bozeman into the U.S. Army Air Corps, eventually flying B-24 missions over Europe.
Wallis, 92, was born and raised in Billings and has lived here most of his adult life.
Wallis played football for Billings High until he graduated in 1938. When he went off to college in Bozeman, he joined the freshman football team.
The school, which later became Montana State University, then had about 1,500 students, about one-twelfth the number enrolled this year.
Wallis played on the freshman team his first year. As a sophomore, he was on the traveling team, but didn’t play. He played more as a junior and then was starting end as a senior in 1941, scoring a touchdown the first game of the season against Western State, a Colorado team.
A serious student majoring in mechanical engineering, football wasn’t the most important thing for Wallis during his four years in Bozeman.
“I did it for the exercise,” he said. “The team wasn’t very good, either.”
Between 1931 and 1941, the Bobcats didn’t have a winning season. Even worse, the Bobcats only won one game during those years against their arch rival in Missoula.
Even though Wallis didn’t play on a winning football team, he excelled in the classroom, becoming a member of military, engineering, academic and social honoraries on campus.
He also met his wife, Jean Collins, a co-ed from Whitefish, while in college.
MSC students were required to join the Reserve Officers Training Corps for two years, but many, like Wallis, volunteered for another two years.
Wallis was at his Sigma Chi fraternity house Dec. 8, 1941, when he heard President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor had been bombed the day before.
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, Wallis went into the U.S. Army Air Corps.
The Air Corps gave anyone with an engineering degree or a similar program with a lot of math a chance to transfer their commission to the Air Corps, which “of course everyone did,” Wallis said.
Wallis was assigned to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, the research and business center of the Air Corps, which was considered a choice assignment. At first, Wallis appreciated that he could use his mechanical engineering degree in projects that included studying the use of high-tensile steel in aircraft.
But after a year, Wallis didn’t feel involved deeply enough in the war and he entered pilot training in 1943.
His time on the football field served him well when he was sent to B-24 training in Alabama.
“The B-24 was a physical critter to fly,” Wallis wrote in an account of his war years. “You had to be strong. All of the instructors looked like football players. ... After shooting practice landings all morning long, you would be drained.”
By November 1944, he was the pilot of a B-24 Liberator with the 446th Bomb Group in northern England flying bombing runs mostly over Germany.
The most exciting of his 21 missions was the first, when he flew as a co-pilot with an experienced crew to Hamburg.
The flak was so bad, “I had second thoughts about leaving Wright Field,” Wallis said.
The plane flew into a huge black cloud. Inside the clouds were orange bursts, which meant the flak was close.
His later missions supported ground troops as they advanced into Germany.
Those were less dramatic, because his targets were railroad marshaling yards, which were not as well defended as larger cities. By that time, the Luftwaffe — the German air force — also had been seriously weakened.
Nevertheless, no mission was worry-free.
“Planes always had holes (from flak damage) by the time we got back,” he said.
After nine missions, Wallis went through training to be a lead crew, and for his remaining missions he flew the lead plane.
The strategy for the Eighth Air Force was for all planes in a squadron to fly in close formation on a lead plane. Because the four-engine planes were heavily armed, the theory was that by flying that way they could defend themselves against German fighters.
That strategy proved costly during the early part of the war, Wallis said.
The Eighth suffered so many losses — higher than ground forces — that it almost gave up daytime high-altitude bombing over Germany.
Wallis’ nine-month overseas service, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, was over when the war ended.
The first thing he did when he returned to the United States was to call Jean, whom he had married in 1944.
After a few minutes of exited conversation, he asked about how her pregnancy was progressing. She told him she was in labor and about to deliver their first child, Peggy.
It took him more than a week to get to Whitefish to see his wife and new baby.
The couple later had another daughter, Gayle, and a son, Jim.
Back in Billings after the war, he went to work for Carter Oil, a subsidiary of Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey that became Exxon, for which Wallis later worked.
When he retired in 1982, he bought his mother’s home on Clark Avenue, built by his grandfather, Yellowstone Valley pioneer I.D. O’Donnell.
Wallis was born and grew up in the house, where he and Jean still live.